Guest Column with Matt Olson: April 2023

A headshot of a middle-aged white bald man in a black suit with a gray shirt.

CHATBOTS THREATEN YOUR WORLD

Mine, too–and here’s what I’m going to do about it

Matt Olson

CEO, Matmon, Inc

DO YOU REMEMBER Rosie, the AI robot from The Jetsons? She did all the chores around the house, and the family could have conversations with her. She listened, and was very helpful with her insights and advice. I’ve been thinking about Rosie ever since Chatbot GPT came out. I hope this bot will eventually turn out to be a big help to humans like Rosie was, but I think we’re going to have a bit of a bumpy ride until we get to that point.

I started my company, Matmon Inc., 25 years ago. We’re a full-service end-to-end marketing agency. We work with our clients to establish a vision—their vision. Then that becomes our direction as we establish strategy and the tactics for carrying out that strategy. And while we establish that, we also modify it in accordance to our clients’ clients. So it’s a two-way street. You’re going to find out what the company needs, but then you also want to find out the desired journey that their clients and prospective clients need to have. That way of working allows us to produce a comprehensive approach to solving our client’s needs, which typically start with, “I need a better website. I need better communication. I need our brand to look and represent us properly.”

At the same time, we’re a small company—eight people. All eight are specialists in their industry. Within these eight people we cover branding, creativity, and endeavors related to overall marketing. But then we get into social media, website design and development, digital marketing, buying advertisements online, and placing those ads in the right spots. We also do the technical aspects of hosting websites and providing services to keep people’s digital marketing mix going, on a monthly basis. As I said, a comprehensive approach.

I’ve been paying attention to AI for some years now, especially in the realm of how Google and the entire web has been deciding what gets put up out there for the people to consume, and what gets suppressed. I remember when Google was about to come out. What do we need Google for? I thought. We have Yahoo and Bing, and all these other search engines. Then, when Google did debut, it was just this…this search box. It had essentially what all the other search engines had, but somehow it had stripped all the extraneous information away. You just typed in the search and hit “Go.” It was so much better than the others. Since then, no one’s really been able to keep up with them, because they’ve always been ahead of the pack. They controlled the most data, and they found out ways to continuously capture even more data, and then learn from that data at a rate that no one could really keep up with. That’s been going on for maybe 10, 15 years.

But since the pandemic, AI has just been exploding. Call it whatever you want—algorithms, algorithmic learning, it’s just feeding AI. They’re monitoring our behaviors, monitoring through apps, everything about all of us, at a level that we’ve never seen before.

And now comes Microsoft’s Chatbot GPT.

I realized the degree to which AI was going to affect my business when I saw a list of five industries that would be most affected by artificial intelligence: Information Technology, Marketing, Finance, Healthcare, and Transportation. And if you dig into them further, three of the five are heavily involved with Information Technology and Marketing—where most of my company’s services are now. We write on the behalf of our clients. There’s the writing that you do to explain a business, and then there’s the writing that you do to set them apart from their competitors. That can get a little more touchy-feely, can tap into the emotions and motivations of their audience. Take taglines: That’s the kind of writing that makes someone stop and say, “That’s interesting. I agree with that. I like that. Those are my kind of people.”

It was a game changer for us when we got into that kind of writing. It took us from just building a website to, now, saying, “Hey, let’s make the website truly represent your brand.” Now, I’m seeing that AI can write to that level. It’s actually writing better than what you can find on the Internet. It’s more concise, it’s more…I don’t know. It’s just at a level that I’ve never imagined it would be.

Back when I was in college, a couple of decades ago, our computer science teachers told us that machine learning would never be able to interpret data, to make actionable items out of that data, and to understand language at a very high level. Our teachers were clearly wrong, because AI is now operating and understanding at a level even higher—much higher—than we were told was never going to happen. The result is going to be a tremendous disruption that our professors didn’t see coming.

And not just for my company or my industry. Apparently, you can send the bot your financial information, how much you’ve earned, your W-2, your expenses, and it’ll do your taxes for you. Just think of all of the companies that could go out of business because of that. Or I could take a legal agreement, submit it to the bot and say, “I’m this person in the agreement, and I need to know where I’m exposed. I need to know where I need to maybe make it a mutual document instead of a one-sided legal agreement.” And it will do that for me. So, lawyers, financial advisors, people who do taxes for businesses—I don’t know why I would pay for that in the future.

I also don’t know why I would hire people to do quite a few of the services that we do, if I can use artificial intelligence. And I don’t know how I would compete with it using humans when AI is so much faster, and is progressing at such a pace. I’m going to be doing this for marketing, for the realm of website design and development. But who’s doing it for project management? Who’s doing it for finance and legal? Who are the people that we can turn to and say, “Hey, at what point is it going to disrupt at a level that we’re just not ready for?” And what is everyone going to do? What jobs will be completely at risk?

Friends have asked me if my team and I are nervous about all this. The answer is no, we’re trying to stay optimistic. We’re trying to look at it as being early adapters. Having said that, after we get into it deeper, we might become nervous. But we aren’t there yet. I would be nervous as a writer. I would be very nervous as a musician. I’d be nervous as an artist—a painter. It’s a strange concept, but in the future, there are going to be people who wonder what they really even need a painter for. If they can have something digitally produced that they find pleasing, then use a machine to apply paint to canvas for them, executing it perfectly the first time, and then hanging it on their wall, who needs an artist? I know how this sounds and I don’t want to be boorish, but what if there’s such a thing as a Matisse bot, or a Picasso bot, in which AI can produce very fine paintings to hang on your wall? What then?

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THE QUESTION, OF course, is, What to do about all this? I’ve been studying AI capabilities a lot lately, just to see what it can and can’t do. I started out asking Chat GPT, “Okay, write a letter to a prospective client, talking about what they would want to know in hiring an agency.” The bot’s response was an eye-opener. It was in a format that was comprehensive and well organized—a catchy lead, good information in the middle, ending with a solid conclusion. And I thought, Wow. Exactly.

After I saw what it could do with writing, I wondered what else it can do. If it’s going to create websites, it’s going to have to create designs and art. And it’s going to have to allow for information to be submitted to it in some format that it can then turn that information into a website. We’re currently researching all the different AI platforms that are doing that, and a lot of these are subscription-based services. Before we subscribe to them, I want to know how advanced they are. Then we’ll be monitoring how fast it’s progressing thereafter. Can it create brand identity, elements, logos, and designs? Can it do that right now? At what level? Then I want to continue to monitor it to see at what point it’s going to be able to do what we do without using humans.

That last sentence comes with a caveat. Contrary to what I’ve read elsewhere, I believe that these bots will perform at their best when directed by a certain type of human. When I look ahead at my company in maybe five years, I think I’ll see more people with interests in philosophy and theory—visionaries more so than doers. I think it will be people who are learning, interpreting, establishing visions, understanding humans at a very deep level. People who can speak deeply and intuitively to the bot, guiding it in its response.

It’s hard to teach empathy, and empathy is one of those words that people think is just a touchy-feely, goo-goo-gaga thing. But it’s something that should be studied. We’re going to have to figure out how AI can help feed people and keep people happy, and allow us to be kind and to live better lives. Right now, our world is so based on fear and worry. We’re going to have to find ways to have it based on hope, and dreams, and kindness. It’s always going to be a battle between those two poles, and I bet any money that AI will eventually have to be used to battle AI.

It’s funny how some people, like The Jetsons, saw it way back when. Many have pondered what it will mean for us if computers get as smart as they could be, and I think now we’re actually starting to witness that. It’s hard to imagine how it will be in 20, 30 years. For me, it’s a little less scary if instead of calling it Chatbot GPT we think of it as “Rosie,” like on The Jetsons.

But even so, when you see it design something, or write in the style of some famous writer you admire, or watch it do your taxes for you, you can’t help feeling that it’s almost human. Or something more than that.