Chatbots for Art’s Sake

with p5.js-Compatible Tools


Course Description

Chatbots are conventionally used in marketing and customer service. They are convenient and cost-effective, though at times creepy and have trouble understanding the nuances of human communication. While businesses continue their bitter-sweet relationship with these automated employees, artists have long been using chatbots in their work to raise awareness about social issues, to comment on the disappearing human-machine divide, to examine interpersonal communication in the age of machine mediation, to digitally archive one’s memory, or simply bring delight into everyday life. 


Inspired by projects such as Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Agent Ruby and American Artist’s Sandy Speaks, this class looks at chatbots as a unique medium of art in the context of the bigger art world and the current chatbot landscape. Chatbots can create experiences that other forms of art cannot. They are interactive by nature—an art piece in the form of a chatbot is only complete with audience participation. They also invite introspection more than any other medium—a user talking to a chatbot is essentially talking to themselves with the assistance of a computer program. 


Students will engage in discussions about various topics related to chatbots, artificial intelligence, and humanity under machine mediation. By experimenting with tools such as Rivescript, RiTa.js, p5.speech, and ml5—all of which can be integrated with p5.js—they are encouraged to come up with their own workflows and create chatbots that can provoke the audience to think beyond the surface level interaction. At the end of the class, students will walk away with the ability to build a chatbot on their own, as well as a deeper understanding of how technology is shaping the world we live in.


Prerequisites: Introduction to Computational Media or comparable programming experience.

Week 1: Chatbots in Art

Week 2: The Human-Machine Divide

Week 3: Homage to the Human Voice

Week 4: Are HR bots the future of Work?

Week 5: Bots are our Mirrors

  • Reading and playing discussion
  • Lecture and discussion: Bots are our Mirrors
  • Technical demo: RiTa.js Part Two
  • Assignment:
    • Watch Alexander Reben’s TED talk written by an A.I.
    • Read: AI Artist Gives “Perfect” TED Talk As Cyborg
    • Project III: You will have two options for this assignment:
      Option A—Chatbots that Judge: Based on our discussions from last week, imagine if a chatbot is made to observe, analyze, manage, and make decisions about you by collecting your data (like a hiring manager). Create such an HR chatbot or any chatbot that has a certain power over you, e.g. school admission admin, immigration officer.
      Option B—Frankenstein Chatbot: Based on the discussions this week, try making a chatbot that “learns” from its interactions with people, and reflect the collective thoughts of its users.
      For either option:
  • Use any combination of tools covered in previous weeks.
  • Think about the user’s role in your narrative. 
  • Consider the user’s experience. How is the conversation initiated? What are the prompts?
  • You have two weeks for this assignment.

Week 6: Integrating Machine Learning

  • Reading and playing discussion
  • Technical demo: Integrating ml5
  • Assignment:
    • Project III: Continue to develop your chatbot from last week.
      • Think about the presentation of your project in an ideal world. Does it live online? Is it a participatory experience in physical space? Is it a performance in which the chatbot plays a role? Will there be an installation that goes with it? 
      • Post your thoughts and your chatbot on the blog.
      • Be ready to present your project next week.

Week 7: Project Presentation

  • Project III presentation
  • Course evaluation