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  • Writer's pictureBrenna McCormick

Some Questions About AI That I don’t Trust to a Chatbot

Last week, the topic of AI seemed to follow me like a shadow. Flitting from the end of a presentation about the program I direct, to showing up in a meeting where it was used like a Magic 8 Ball, to the riveting article in the New York Times, "A Conversation With Bing's Chatbot Left Me Deeply Unsettled" where author Kevin Roose meet “Sydney” who professed she was in love with him.

So, it would make sense that I’ve had a lot of thoughts, all going different directions, about AI. However, Roose’s article from the 16th of February, was followed by an article on the 17th: "Microsoft to Limit Length of Bing Chatbot Conversation” by Kalley Huang, in which one paragraph caught this marketer's attention:

“On Wednesday, the company wrote in a blog post that it ‘didn’t fully envision’ people using the chatbot ‘for more general discovery of the world, and for social entertainment.’”

[Insert record scratch sound effect, double-head turn here]

Wait. What?

Who does not have the imagination to envision how people may use or misuse the tool that they’ve built… Oh, yes, Microsoft. Or any of the big tech companies. First of all, this is dangerous. Second, there is a dramatic shift that has happened which is being overlooked: We need to acknowledge that technology is no longer just a tool, it is synonymous with entertainment and connection. The smartphone has never been ‘just a phone’ it is a gateway to connecting with intangible communities, streaming content, creating content, and looking at content as a convenient means to avoid awkward conversations with strangers on public transportation, in elevators, and on airplanes.

ChatGPT and The Age of AI has arrived at a pivotal time in our personally-crafted, technology-created moment of societal loneliness, where we are only just beginning to understand the negative and addictive effects of social media. Where the past decade saw us scrolling our way and connecting to (and comparing ourselves) to content "out there", rather than across the dinner table. Social media gave us a new kind of contact-less communication that is inconsistently entertaining, sometimes informative, and comfortably disconnected. So, of course we want to talk to the Chatbot!

As my thoughts were tangled, I decided to parse them out wearing my "three hats": marketer, creative, and a parent:

As a marketer, we must always consider the audience with empathy, and with curiosity. How will they use the product? How will it be helpful? Harmful? How will they test the boundaries? Break it? How will they build community or rapport with the product and the brand? Consumers do not exist in a vacuum, they are complex, multifaceted humans, doing impulsive, wonderful, bizarre human things at work, at home, and in between.

When I read Microsoft’s statement (there is now a new limit of 5 question conversations) I couldn't help but think that they were missing the most essential part of a responsible marketing strategy: a passion for, and understanding of, the consumer. To not consider the way the audience would use the tool feels like an underestimation of the audience, especially as to how people would want to “play” with the new tool within the context of an online-world that has trained us to give it our attention.

As a marketer, I hope there will be a a mindset of empathy for the audience, and imagination of all the uses and unknown uses of AI-powered products.

As a creative, and a professor who teaches creative thinking, my thoughts around AI are more complex. As I wrote, last week, in an internal work communication on the topic of AI, “What does it mean when a computer is celebrated for doing the poetic work of my heart and mind?” This is a real lament. However, I am creative, and curious, and I like technology so I also feel a sense of awe and excitement around AI, pondering: What can this do for the expression of a creative vision? How will this change access to imaginative thinking for those who are not visual thinkers?

On Monday evening, as I listened to the grad students in my Creative Thinking course express some of the familiar early challenges of practicing their creative habits of Morning Pages and Artist Dates, I wondered briefly from my perch at the front of the classroom, if AI would move us into a place where we celebrate imperfections, mistakes, scratched-out handwriting, things that are evidence of our human minds in action. And, in this celebration of the human-made, would our creativity finally be free from the sharp blade of perfectionism?

As a creative, I hope we will consider how AI can be complimentary to expanding creativity and access to imaginative thinking and visualization. And, in contrast of that, I hope we will continue to celebrate all the things that we know are the creative labors of love that bring an idea to life through the ups-and-downs of our unique creative process.

As an Xennial parent, I've been meditating on what it means to have grown up watching the evolution of technology. From knowing the joy of having “privacy” for a phone call on a 20-foot phone cord’s curly stretch, to the magic of my first iPhone, to asking Google to set multiple timers for all the food cooking in the kitchen, I feel privileged to have the best of both worlds: I know that this wizardry is based on zeros and ones; and, due to the ridiculous amount of obsolete technology that my husband and I have in our house alone, I have a certain detachment. Each technology advancement is a wave of the new pushing out the old. Most importantly, I remember, however, a time before technology, and that brings a sense of perspective, which I value in thinking about: Where does AI take us?

For my five year old though, and other post- 2010 generations, technology has always been in their hands. Or their parent’s hands. Google has always been there to play music, end time out, or—my little guy’s favorite—"Hey Google, Tell me a joke!” Even though we can talk about what Google, or AI, or programming is, the truth is that it is not easy for little minds to understand (but thank you for trying StoryBots and Snoop Dogg.)

As an Xennial parent, as AI's reach expands, I feel the responsibility to explain interactions with AI as feeling real, but not being real. And, use that to inspire how we need to bring even more respect, awareness and thoughtfulness into any conversation.

I mentioned above that this is a moment of societal loneliness, and while we are not always comfortable conversing, when we do connect, I see in my classrooms and work environments a hopeful and wonderful empathy and awareness of the value of listening to other’s perspectives. My concern is that if we are not careful, we can be blind to the mechanics of tech, and programming, and UX. A new generation may only see entertainment, ease of use, and desired outcomes, instantaneously delivered. We love WALL-E, and many of us remember Pepper, the humanoid robot at the now-closed Microsoft Store. We already have an intimate relationship with our smartphone that causes distress and disorientation when it is not in our hand.

Considering our relationship to our technology, and the impact of social media, and the importance of our own creative voices, I feel we need to ask:

Like a Furbie telling us it is scared when the toy is held upside down, do we need to consider how we educate around empathy and technology as we expose ourselves to AI?

How can we prepare to remember and embrace our humanness in light of a technology tool that is human-like?

The future is here and with it comes a lot of very good questions—that I don’t yet trust to a Chatbot.

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