If developments in artificial intelligence continue, robots, chatbots, and freakishly human androids are set to infiltrate many aspects of our lives, but is friendship one of them? Developer Sandi MacPherson’s personal chatbot raises some interesting and potentially troubling questions.
Remembering birthdays is hard. So is remembering your best friend’s favorite flavor of ice cream when they’ve been dumped, your mom’s favorite flowers on Mother’s Day, and that barbecue place your dad’s been dying to try when he’s visiting from out of town. Sure, you can ask them, but then the jig is up-you’re officially the forgetful one in the relationship.
Beyond the social awkwardness around needing to ask questions you should know the answer to, you can’t always wait around for whomever you’re asking to text back: when you’re in Ticketmaster’s 15 minute countdown, an unanswered text can feel like a lifetime. It’s an annoying problem, but a common one, and Quibb founder Sandi MacPherson might have a solution.
Enter SandiMcBot, a chatbot with a very specific field of expertise.
Text me on 646-887-2634 – you can ask me questions, i can chat with you about most things related to @sandimac
— Sandi MacBot (@sandimacbot) April 26, 2016
In her recent Medium post, MacPherson reveals the thought process behind creating her digital mini-me: in part to anticipate those aforementioned awkward questions, but also, and more significantly for MacPherson, so that all of the information she already regularly shares online would be available quickly, easily, and in one place.
Don’t Ask Me, Ask My Bot
We increasingly work and communicate over internet channels, and even if we don’t live online, our information does. Myspace was the first big platform where your online identity both reflected and informed your offline identity and as social media platforms proliferate, the ones you choose to engage with and the way you engage with them speaks to who you are.
Try dating someone with incompatible Netflix queues or someone who has radically different social media habits. While the Pew Research Center found that 9% of couples used text messaging to resolve an issue that they were having trouble resolving otherwise, another perk of social media is how, to some extent, it removes the need for certain kinds of communication: if you want to know where your friend is or when their birthday is, chances are you don’t have to ask them, you just need to consult their Facebook page.
The problem is that we’re spread too thin. Despite Facebook and Google’s best efforts, the average internet user has 5 social media profiles, and some people have many more (MacPherson refers to this as the “container problem”). It’s hard to totally compartmentalize your life and it can be confusing or tedious to ask for a recommendation on Quora, update your Goodreads, change your Quibb, and start live-tweeting chapter updates.
Social media users with information scattered across many platforms are particularly well suited for a personal chatbot and are more likely to be early adopters- why not jump on the chance to simplify and streamline an online persona? In contrast, someone who under-uses social media (or doesn’t use social media at all) probably won’t see the value of pouring their personality into bot online– or will have serious qualms about a digital copy texting their friends when they’re not around.
To most of the general public, generating a personal chatbot might seem more than a little vain. Sandi MacPherson said that more than one person asked about how useful the bot would be, which she paraphrases as “But who cares about you? What’s the frequency of use of something like this?” For a regular Joe or Jane, the number of users are likely to stay low. But imagine the number of users a Kardashian could gather– the three sisters have a combined 85.7 million+ followers on Twitter alone– for them, using chatbots suddenly starts to make a lot of sense. Mark Zuckerberg has already hinted at the ability to talk to celebrities via their bots on Messenger, and who wouldn’t want to chat with Queen Bey about her favorite movie?
Social media is increasingly becoming a business for some (with its own accompanying risks), but chatbots’ use value extend past celebrities. They’re already a godsend for customer service reps who must walk users through a complex or lengthy but largely consistent process, and it might also be a useful tool for managers, teachers, and freelancers with a large client roster.
Even for those of us who are less in demand, dealing with and maintaining social obligations can get exhausting. Gathering the dietary requirements of your entire sorority when planning a summer soiree, or checking in with your overstressed sister-in-law to ensure a wedding gift hasn’t already been bought by another guest can suck the fun out of socializing and make interacting with friends and loved ones seem like a chore. While there are already mechanisms in place for some of these problems, it’s the “container problem” again: unless you’re getting something specific from the list, rather than a surprise gift, you’re forced to do a lot of tedious checking around. Isn’t it much easier to text a bot?
Ifs, Ands, or Bots
Convinced yet? While, it’s pretty straightforward and doesn’t take long, not everyone is on the bot train. A pretty obvious problem is privacy: access to the kind of information a chatbot could provide would easily be exploited by hackers with malicious intent. As a developer, MacPherson is more aware than most of this potential Achilles heel. However, she still asserts that “there’s a certain class of intents (existing and tbd) that bots can meet 10x better than the paradigm of the current social platforms can.”
MacPherson added or authorized every piece of information Sandi McBot can give out, but if the idea takes off, it’s unlikely that the average user will take the time to curate their bots this stringently. When Facebook rolled out Search FYI, we realized that while we’re responsible for what we put online, users tend to become less share-happy as they age. Unfortunately, many millennials started sharing their thoughts and actions at an age before they could fathom the permanence of online squabbles with their seventh grade BFF. Furthermore, the nature of Facebook’s timeline mean that your high school worldviews don’t fade into oblivion and are sure to pop up at inconvenient times, like Mhairi Black’s 6-year-old tweets during her run for Parliament. It’s possible that like Facebook’s enhanced search engine, future chatbots might reveal information that users forgot they put online and would rather not be made so easily accessible.
Also, the idea of outsourcing friendship, even the dull bits, feels somewhat heartless. Admittedly, this reaction isn’t entirely rational: all a personal chatbot does is give easy access to information that could only be gleaned by asking around or tediously stalking social media. However, part of how we show love is through doing things for our friends and family, even tiny things like remembering a birthday or making sure a gift isn’t a duplicate. These irritating tasks might seem insignificant, but even miniscule amounts of affection carry meaning. Furthermore, what happens if your chatbot is more fun to talk to than you are? “Bad” texters, be wary.
Then again, when social media first became popular, many people felt that the new technology cheapened friendship, a criticism that periodically resurfaces. Others argue that Facebook makes it easier to hang onto connections that would otherwise be lost — we might not make a phone call to a college buddy, but will readily reply to a wall post. It’s not the same, but it’s something. Sure, we have more connections than before, but the intent behind our actions is the same — and we still haven’t invented an app that allows us to automate a hug or a smile. When embraced and held in perspective, new innovations have the potential to enrich our lives.
Chat To The Future
Are chatbots set to be as ubiquitous as Facebook is currently? While there’s certainly potential, a chatbot can only ever be as powerful as the information it has access to. Although chatbots would be uncannily knowledgeable about social media super-users, there are still a large number of people who don’t feel comfortable putting all their all their information on the cloud, or who just can’t be bothered.
With the increasing popularity of chatbots, it’s been suggested that future user interfaces will resemble the command line, which was largely displaced by user-friendly point-and-click designs years ago. Purists still use the command line; when mastered, users are able to easily automate tasks, but most internet users can’t be bothered to memorize the massive lines of code that command line interaction demands. Modern AI is much better at interpreting sloppily worded and typed messages, as well as replying to them in something much closer to human language. In the future, social media could look a lot more like a text conversation with your bestie’s bot than a look at their Facebook timeline.
MacPherson points out that her bot, as well as bot technology in general, is in the early stages of adoption. At this point, it’s not clear whether misgivings are due to genuine problems or a lack of familiarity with the new platform. MacPherson sums up her thoughts: “But that’s what new social behaviours look like — many new social products feel like a cheap, tactless version of the ‘real thing’, and mebots are no different.”