How AI chatbots are helping some people have difficult conversations
Todd Mitchem continued to struggle to have honest and productive conversations with his son. “He’s 15,” Mr Mitchem, 52, said with a laugh. “Teenagers are so hard to contact.”
Whenever he tried to address a sensitive issue, his son gave vague answers or ran away, preferring to avoid serious discussions altogether.
In the past, when Mr. Mitchem needed parenting help, he would read a book or ask a question at the men’s support group he met weekly.
But recently he turned to ChatGPT. And he’s not alone: Others are turning to artificial intelligence chatbots to figure out what to say in seemingly high-stakes situations. They use the tool to talk or read to their children, to approach bosses, to provide tough feedback, to write wedding vows or to write love letters.
Unlike turning to friends or even professionals for help, the bot, Mr Mitchem said, gives what looks like objective advice. “The bot gives me answers based on analytics and data, not human emotions,” he said.
ChatGPT, the new virtual tool powered by Open AI, draws its information from a wide range of online materials, including books, news articles, scientific journals, websites and even message boards, allowing users to have human conversions with a chat bot.
“It gives you what the collective mind of the internet hive would say,” said Irina Raicu, who directs the internet ethics program at Santa Clara University. (Other companies, including Google and Microsoft, have their own versions of this technology, and Microsoft, called Bing AI, recently gained notoriety for aggressively declaring its love to New York Times reporter Kevin Roose.)
Mr. Mitchem, who lives in Denver and is the executive vice president of learning and products for a leadership training company, opened his conversation by typing, in summary: “I need some friendly advice.”
“OK, no problem,” replied ChatGPT, according to Mr. Mitchem. “What is your name?”
During their conversation, ChatGPT told Mr. Mitchem that he was a good dad for even wondering how to approach a conversation with his son about the decision to join a basketball team. “It said something like, ‘It’s cool if you don’t succeed, but it’s great that you try.
Mr Mitchem said the bot then continued: “Teenagers, when they grow up, try to force their independence. Remember that when you talk to him, he needs to know that you trust your decisions.
The next day, Mr. Mitchem approached his son and tried the board. “I said to him, ‘You have to make this decision, you’re 14, and I hope you make a good one,’” Mr Mitchem said. “My son says, ‘Wow, that’s great. I will let you know what I decide.
“We left on a high note,” Mr. Mitchem said. “It totally worked.”
Once upon a time …
For Naif Alanazi, a 35-year-old Ph.D. a student at Kent State University, bedtime is a sacred ritual for him and his 4-year-old daughter, Yasmeen. “I have to work all day,” he says. “This is our special moment.”
His Saudi family has a long tradition of oral history. Wanting to pursue her, he strove to concoct exciting new stories every night. “Do you know how difficult it is to come up with something new every day? he asked, laughing.
Now, however, it lets the bot do the work.
Each night, he asks ChatGPT to create a story that involves people (his daughter’s teacher, for example) and places (school, park) from his day, with a cliffhanger at the end for him to continues the story the following night. “Sometimes I ask her to add a value she needs to learn, like honesty or kindness to others,” he said.
“Being able to give her something that’s more than a generic story, something that can strengthen our bond and show her that I care about her daily life,” he said, “it makes me feel so closer to her.”
Anifa Musengimana, 25, an international marketing student in London, believes chatbots can help make the boredom of online dating more interesting. “I have a lot of repetitive conversations about these apps,” she said. “The app can give me fun ideas of what to talk about, and maybe I’ll find better people to date.”
“If I get intriguing answers, I’ll be drawn in,” she said.
She said she would tell her match that she was using the tool. “I want a guy who finds it funny,” she said. “I wouldn’t want a guy who is so serious that he gets mad at me for doing it.”
Some use chatbots to improve the relationships they already have.
James Gregson, 40, a creative director who lives in Avon, Connecticut, uses ChatGPT to write love letters to his wife.
“I’m not a poet, I’m not a songwriter, but I can take subjects of things my wife might like and put them into a song or a poem,” he said.
He also believes in full disclosure: “I’ll give him one, but I’ll tell him who wrote it,” he said. “I’m not trying to scam him.”
Jessica Massey, 29, a financial analyst at Cisco Systems who lives in Buffalo, wrote draft emails to her boss using ChatGPT. “I wanted to test its abilities to see if there was another way the AI would express what I was thinking in my head,” she wrote in an email. (One interviewee admitted to using ChatGPT to prepare for their interview for this story. Another admitted to using it for employee reviews.)
Ms Massey used the bot to write an email to her boss explaining why the company should pay for a certain professional certification. The bot gave her a nice boilerplate language, she said. She hasn’t sent it yet, but plans to once she changes the “verbiage a bit to make it sound more like me.”
Ms. Massey, however, has a rule about using a chat bot: “Disclose it when you finish your job or don’t use it at all.”
However, researchers studying technology and ethics have mixed feelings about using ChatGPT for highly personal communication.
“We shouldn’t automatically dismiss tools that might help people navigate a difficult conversation,” said Michael Zimmer, director of the Center for Data, Ethics, and Society at Marquette University. He likens it to buying a Hallmark card for a birthday or anniversary. “We all agreed to do this because the words on the card correspond to something I believe,” he said.
However, Ms. Raicu of Santa Clara University is concerned that people are using ChatGPT for personal communication. She doesn’t like the idea that there is a “right” and a “wrong” way to communicate. “I think the right words depend on the people communicating and the context,” she said. “There’s no formula for a lot of these things.”
Ms Raicu said using ChatGPT for personal communication can undermine trust: “People might ask, ‘Do I really know who I’m talking to?’”
Photos by Getty Images
Leave a Reply