In 1991 I was working at a startup in New York City called Vision Applications, Inc. We were entirely funded by a Department of Defense contract to produce a miniature active vision system. My speciality at the time was computer vision and robotics. Our thoughts were far away from natural language processing. We were however deeply concerned with issues of cost and robot design. Like many of our colleagues at the time we espoused a "minimalist" design philosophy based on cheap sensors and simple stimulus-response algorithms, rather than complex and costly processing.
One day my colleagues and I read in the New York Times about the first Loebner contest. None of the programs could "pass" the Turing Test, but the "most human" was one based on the original ELIZA psychiatrist program.
When I was a graduate student in the 1980's we were taught that the ELIZA program was a "toy" that would never lead to a practical solution for natural language understanding. The research emphasis at that time was "domain specific" natural language, with deep knowledge representation and computationally expensive (slow) parsing. The notion that the supposedly simple ELIZA-like program could outperform the more complex natural language programs merged with my ideas about robotic miminalism, and the germ of the idea of ALICE was born.
These thoughts remained dormant through the first half of the 1990's, when I struggled to establish myself as a robotics and computer vision professor at NYU and Lehigh Universities. In a very real sense ALICE was born from the frustration of those experiences, and the realization that much of my own job as a professor was "robotic" responses to frequently asked questions.
One day in 1995 I received two forms in my mailbox. They were progress report forms needed by two different divisions of the University. Several hours of work would be required to type (by typewriter!) the required responses. Yet the two forms were almost, but not quite, identical: Name, Address, Position, Classes taught, Publications in 1995, etc. Already swamped with work and stressed out to the max, I realized that an ELIZA-like robot could fill out these forms, or at least provide the answers, even better than I could. That day I pushed the forms aside and began working on ALICE. The forms were never completed and eventually I was fired from that teaching job.