Focused, Helpful Robots


Most of my writing these days is either just for me, or for my job. When I do write with the intention of posting something in public, I either get stuck in perfectionist limbo, or find other excuses to stop myself from actually sharing anything online. In the spirit of anti-perfectionism, I’m periodically posting topics from my grab bag of ‘shower thoughts’ on how we use and think about artificial intelligence.

These were all intended to be longer posts. Maybe they still will be someday. For now, I’d like to share them as topics that might inspire others to go down their own personal rabbit holes, or serve as jumping off points for conversations with other technology wranglers and daydreamers.

Focused, Helpful Robots

One thing I like about using tools like ChatGPT or Claude for guiding my personal research is the simplicity and mental quiet of the interface. They also have a sincerely helpful attitude that can be equally rare when you go to ask for help online. The feeling I get from using them brings me back to watching “Star Trek: The Next Generation” as a kid. That was a future I wanted to live in. Not only was there all that stuff about Earth becoming a utopia - you could just say “Computer” and a helpful voice would always respond, that wasn’t just trying to get you to buy more stuff on Amazon.

Since then, the internet has turned into a noisy, distracting, and crowded place. There have always been pop-ups and viruses, but now it’s like we’ve designed the viruses right into the baseline experience. Automatically playing videos constantly invade your field of view. Even the stuff that isn’t technically ads is presented like ads, optimized to be attention-grabbing over anything else. Screen real estate on the web is maximized like a downtown office block or dystopian housing development, crammed shoulder-to-shoulder with nested content. Compared to this hectic digital landscape, using a simple text box on an otherwise mostly-blank page feels like stepping into a secluded Zen garden.

I also like that GenAI has a can-do attitude. It doesn’t aggressively question why you’re wanting to know about something in the first place. I’ve spent a lot of time on the internet trying to get help on forums. It turns out that a lot of the people who frequent forums are there to tell you not to do whatever it is you’re trying to do. I have yet to have GenAI tell me the same thing. It does couch its answers with precautions and caveats, which is what you actually want from people, too. And I do appreciate when people ask why I want to do something, to clarify intent. It’s something I’d like to start using more in my instructions to GenAI. But what I don’t want is for that ‘why’ to turn into an essay about how what I’m doing is doomed and wrong and pointless.

You might say that you get what you pay for. Subscriptions to GenAI tools charge you enough money that maybe they can ‘afford’ not to distract you. You could say something similar about the kind of advice you might get for free online. But I think there is a new pattern forming here that I hope continues to spread, as these kinds of tools evolve and become more central to user experiences. By now, people have accepted that they’re going to have to filter through a lot of noise on the internet to get a signal. We do this today using a combination of dedicated apps and simply scrolling past all the desperate cries for clicks. But what if in the future, clicks really didn’t matter? What if the attraction of a focused and helpful robot was able to create a positive emotional connection with an app or service, that didn’t require any clickbait or pop-ups or flashing lights?

I’m hoping the emotional reaction I have to using GenAI tools isn’t just a fluke or temporary condition. If it isn’t, then I can dare to dream that focused, helpful robots will someday reverse the trend of putting so much strain on the user to simply do what they came here to do. And maybe my Star Trek: TNG dreams aren’t totally dead after all.

Written on April 21, 2024