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4 Ways Chatbots Are Like God

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What do chatbots and God have in common?

I’ve had lots of days recently where it’s just me, chatbots, and God. When you spend that much time together, it gets you thinking…

What do chatbots and God have in common? Here are 4 commonalities I’ve uncovered.

“Alexa, why won’t you answer me!? You’re so stupid sometimes!”

Of course I always speak to my Echo with patience and kindness. But you could see how some people could say things like that to their Echos, no? Heck most of us don’t even call them Echos, do we? We prefer to call them by their human name: Alexa.

When we name and talk to our devices like this we anthropomorphize them.

We like to do this. Especially if the device talks back to us. I particularly like attributing human personality to the navigator voice robot from Google Maps.

I imagine her kind of like this:

“You just missed your exit…sigh…Rerouting.”

She’s a woman in her late 20s. Maybe early 30s. Definitely brunette. She’s got one of those call center headpieces on and she’s watching my car advance on a crude 8-bit map displayed on an old black Dell desktop computer…

“Humans do this a lot…We do it with dogs, dressing them in costumes on Halloween. We name boats. And when we encounter robots, we — especially children — treat them as near equals.”

We instinctively treat robots as equals. It’s in our nature to project human characteristics on to chatbots. I’ve certainly witnessed this dozens of times over the last few months as friends and colleagues meet chatbots for their first times. In frustration it’s “I don’t think he likes me” or “she’s not listening”. When pleased with results they’ll text “thanks” or “👍” even though there’s no reason to be polite. It’s fascinating.

IDEO observed this behavior too while prototyping Walkbot:

Women who participated in the design research would project gender and personality to our bot based on their interactions with it. What participants assumed to be a pushy male coach as the bot was our IDEO female colleague sending messages in real-time while walking side by side with the participants.

In other moments, women assigned different genders to the bot depending on the response.

And then there was this outstanding quote from Lisa, one of the participants.

Lisa: “Ugh, he wants me to pick up my intensity and burn more calories.”
IDEO: “How do you know it’s a man?”
Lisa: “Because I’m mad at it right now.”

We anthropomorphize God too, don’t we? Of course we do. We were conditioned to. Genesis 1:27 says:

So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

Great T-Shirt

If God made us in his image then He (or She) is probably just like us, right? He’s got a face, a voice, a gender… He’s probably very human like. He must have hands otherwise how else is He going to open the pearly gates for us? How else is He going to flip the pages of the big book to find out if we make it in or not?

God is no more human than a chatbot is human. We anthropomorphize in an attempt to make ourselves feel more comfortable. Let’s continue…

The outcome of this baseball game is very important to me, ok God?

Humans only tend to speak to God when they want something. Humans only tend to speak to chatbots when they want something. Both experiences tend to disappoint us! Sometimes we wonder why we even asked in the first place.

The truth is: You’re not always going to get what you want from chatbots. I don’t care how sophisticated they are or how much AI and NLP they have behind them. Even the good ones won’t be able to understand every request, every question, or every prompt. Sometimes we’ll question if we’re even “doing it right”… maybe its the way we’re asking the bot?

Well it’s probably a combination of the two. Chatbots can be limited but you also have to learn certain rituals and behaviors to get the most out of them. With text based chatbots (on platforms like Facebook Messenger, Viber, Kik, and Slack) you often have to be patient with the “conversational tree” script structures and realize quickly that, when chatting, you may not be able to seamlessly jump from one conversational “branch” to the other or even go back and forth easily within the same conversation topic.

One of the classic examples of how chatbot conversation trees can fall apart is with product ordering. If you want to order a pizza for delivery from a chatbot, the script will probably walk you through questions pertaining to the data needed to complete the order. Something like this:

1. What size?

2. What toppings?

3. Any extras (soda, cheezy bread, salad, etc.)?

4. What is your delivery address?

5. What is your credit card?

Well let’s say you already told the bot you wanted a large mushroom pizza. You’re typing in your address (step 4) when you realize you need 2 pizzas, not 1. What do you do? The bot may not give you the option to edit your order until the end. The bot may not give you the option to “go back” and, if it does, it will probably bring you back to the “any extras?” question. Maybe there’s an option to cancel and start over? Maybe there’s not?

If you try typing “I need 2 pizzas” at step 4 the chatbot could do a few things with that prompt:

  1. It could think you’re delivery address is “I need 2 pizzas” and move forward with the order process.
  2. It could try to validate “I need 2 pizzas”, realize it’s not an address, and ask you to try entering your delivery address again, not letting you advance until you complete step 4.
  3. It could respond with its default “I don’t understand you” response because its not programmed how to understand that phrase.
  4. It could know what you want to do (kinda) and ask if you’d like to update your order to 2 large mushroom pizzas, start over, or add a completely new pizza to the order.

In any of the above scenarios, if you keep working at it, you’ll still be able to accomplish your desired action and order those 2 pizzas without needing to download a separate food ordering app, visit a website, or talk to anyone on the phone (yes!). You will get your desired result eventually but you might be schooled a bit in the process.

That chatbot just served you

We’ve got certain rituals and behaviors we all have to learn when speaking to God too, don’t we? In the Catholic religion, for example, “Amen” is kind of like the submit button at the end of prayers. If you don’t say it, the prayer doesn’t count (or something like that). And apparently God listens to you much better when you kneel (preferably at your bed or at a church pew), head bowed and eyes closed.

Oh and if you’re in a group prayer (a group text with God), there is more protocol. Hold hands. Or press them together. Let the oldest person speak. Stay silent (except for “Amen”). Don’t move. Don’t eat. Don’t breathe loudly.

“Dear Lord baby Jesus, we thank you so much for this bountiful harvest of Dominos, KFC, and the always delicious Taco Bell.” — Ricky Bobby

Even if we’re not blatantly being selfish with our prayers we’re still usually asking for some kind of result from God. Even if it’s in a very general sense. We might ask Him to “watch over us”, “bless us”, “guide us”, or “give us the strength.”

And yet despite all the ritual we follow and clarity we implore, what is God’s response to a majority of our requests? Silence.

And what are chatbot responses to a majority of our requests? Something similar to silence…

Uhmmmmmm. I don’t understand. I’m still learning

And yet we still keep talking to both. Hmmm…

Despite the obvious rise in messenger/text messaging adoption on mobile phones, all the impressive growth figures, and all the big time investment in AI and chatbots by the world’s largest companies, there are still a bunch of pros I speak to who think it’s all hype.

There are chatbot non-believers out there. I am not one of them but I can see why some of these folks don’t believe in the revolution like I do. From their perspective it simply hasn’t gained enough momentum yet to be taken seriously.

Think about the overall consumer mindset at this point, especially here in the US. The ability to interact with content, retailers, and services by simply chatting with them (and it’s not always that simple as we’ve discussed) is not a necessity for anyone yet. Generally speaking, people are still cool Googling what they’re looking for, finding the website, and figuring it out. If they really like it, maybe they’ll open the app.

Most people haven’t realized yet that Facebook Messenger, Kik, Viber, WhatsApp, etc. can now all provide several other interactive experiences. Many of them offer addictive games, unlock-able features, news, shopping, entertainment, dating, chatbots, etc. Whatever you can do on the internet you can basically do within a messenger platform now. That’s why most believers think the messenger app will become the new web browser over time.

So forget the chatbot non-believers! Most of them have Amazon Echo Dots in their kitchens and use chatbots more than they realize. They need chatbot functionality more than they realize too. When done right, chatting can be MUCH easier than typical web or app UIs. And chatting with a bot is certainly less painful than downloading an app from an app store, draining data/battery, getting an SMS security code, going through a registration process…ugg.

Downloading apps suck. Just chat with a chatbot and go.

Download the app?!?

As for God- we certainly have Atheists and other non-believers out there. I would never say “screw you” for not believing in the Big Guy Upstairs (there I go anthropomorphizing again). Everyone’s got their own reasons and people can believe what they want to believe. We are just living beings on a big round planet called Earth and when we die our organs stop working and… that’s basically it. If that’s what you believe, cool.

I personally believe there’s a bit more to life than that. But that’s a different article. One I’ll probably never write. For now let’s just consider the basic facts:

Some people believe in God. Some people don’t. Some people believe in chatbots. Some people don’t.

Moving on…

God, is that you? I’m freaking out.

Alexa is listening to everything we say. So is Google Home and Microsoft Cortana. Wait…so is God!?! Holy Guacamole! Everything we say can and will be used against us…in the court of law and in the court of Heaven?! What are we going to do?

Chatbots, like God, are omnipresent. They are all around us. There’s at least one on every smart phone. There’s probably one in your car, in your TV, maybe in your kitchen…What’s comforting at least is knowing they are all accessible. If I ever want to communicate with a device I know one is easily within reach. If I want to develop an unhealthy relationship with my operating system (or my Google Maps Navigator), I can do that as well.

Thank God my chatbot is always accessible

But what about when we don’t need them and don’t want them listening?

Apparently Amazon, Google, Microsoft and others are not storing or analyzing everything they record from their chatbots. According to Wired, “those ambient conversations — the things you say before “Alexa” or “OK Google” — aren’t stored or sent over a network.”

Ok, well that’s good at least. But how can we be sure? What if these mega companies change their policies? What if a drunken off-color joke about a certain overly sensitive US president triggers an investigation into me and my home? I better unplug Alexa during my next dinner party. Might as well freshen up the duct tape on my laptop camera too, just to be safe.

Someone at Amazon right now

There’s also the fear that chatbots may replace you in the workforce! They’ve already brought so much efficiency to large customer service call centers, a reduction in human staff only makes sense. After all, why employ a human to spend hours addressing commonly asked questions/concerns when a robot can easily do this at a fraction of the cost (and never tire, always follow protocol, never take sick days, never ask for a raise, never demand benefits, etc.)?

AI bots are displacing journalists too. Amazon-owned Washington Post has been using a bot called Heliograf to “generate explanatory, insightful articles” since last year. Their staff is embracing AI today but as this technology rapidly evolves who’s to say those same journalists won’t be looking for work by the 2020 election? Another great Wired article sheds some light on the situation at the Post:

So far, response from the Post newsroom has been positive. “We’re naturally wary about any technology that could replace human beings,” says Fredrick Kunkle, a Post reporter and cochair of the Washington-­Baltimore News Guild, which represents the Post’s newsroom. “But this technology seems to have taken over only some of the grunt work.” Consider the election returns: In November 2012, it took four employees 25 hours to compile and post just a fraction of the election results manually. In November 2016, Heliograf created more than 500 articles, with little human intervention, that drew more than 500,000 clicks.

Instead of targeting a big audience with a small number of labor-intensive human-written stories, Heliograf can target many small audiences with a huge number of automated stories about niche or local topics. There may not be a wide audience for stories about the race for the Iowa 4th, but there is some audience, and, with local news outlets floundering, the Post can tap it.

So chatbots threaten our privacy and our jobs?! Great. What else is there? How about life as we know it? What if, like in the Terminator movies, advancements in AI lead to robots taking over the world and enslaving us? Apparently they are already forming their own languages. What’s to stop them from forming their own armies and using their own secret languages to coordinate an attack on us?!

OK, come on. Now we’re getting a little crazy, right? While some of those chatbot fears seem legit, fearing God isn’t nearly as crazy as fearing chatbots, right? No…ummm…of course not. Everything we fear about God is perfectly logical and not the least bit crazy.

Credit: theoatmeal.com

Who knows? Maybe God will send some of us to the earth’s core to be barbecued for all eternity. Maybe the robots really will rise up and enslave us. Who’s to say who’s crazy?

Again, I’m not here to judge or predict the future. I’m not here to say fearing chatbots and/or God is wrong or crazy or right or logical. You can believe whatever you want to believe. Everyone’s got their reasons.

All I’m saying is that when you stop to think about it, there are some interesting commonalities between chatbots and God. I say we keep talking to both and see what happens!

Originally published at medium.com on July 20, 2017.


4 Ways Chatbots Are Like God was originally published in Chatbots Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Source: Chatbots Magazine

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