My colleague Will Oremus spent months trying, failing, and trying again to use ChatGPT to help summarize, brainstorm, and write information.
Try for yourself what happens when you apply some chatbot tweaks, like feeding ChatGPT personal details about your friend to draft a wedding toast.
Will said that an important lesson he learned from his research and experiments was to change (or lower) our expectations of AI chatbots.
ChatGPT is less like a magic 8 ball that delivers the perfect answer and more like a brainstorming partner who is relentless but not too smart.
I spoke with Will to identify the dos and don’ts of how you can get the most out of AI chatbots.
Google and Wikipedia aren’t perfect, but they’re often good enough for reliable factual information.
“It’s not like we’re talking about chatbots at this point,” Will said. “We’re talking about a whole range of questions where AI will go wildly wrong.”
Paraphrasing programmer Simon Willison, Will said that AI chatbots give you an average or specific response to information the software has pulled from millions of websites. That average can be right – or incredibly wrong.
And if the chatbot asks “What is Shira Ovid’s favorite food?” If you don’t know the answer. It can find a plausible sounding answer.
For questions with a known answer — the height of the Washington Monument or the biography of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz — use Google or Wikipedia, not ChatGPT.
Use chatbots to help brainstorm
When Will was planning an 8th birthday party for his son, he typed into ChatGPT for help with invitations — but not drafting.
Will knew that the AI had obtained invitations to children’s parties from the Internet. He wanted a glimpse of what the partying parents had done before.
The ChatGPT-suggested invitation wording says something like, Come to the party, there will be games, cake and prizes. “And I thought, ‘Do people give out prizes for birthday parties?’” Will said. (Yes they do.)
Will said that because chatbots have a large archive of people’s past online writing, he started using ChatGPT to learn what other people have done before, such as planning parties, soccer practice and more.
Don’t ask a chatbot once and wait
Chatbot experts know that the first response when you type, “How do I talk my 8-year-old into brushing her teeth?” Can be generic and useless.
But Will said that if you keep going back and forth, ChatGPT can come up with something that sparks an idea.
“You don’t sit around expecting to type your prompt, get a response, and be done,” Will said. “It should always be considered an iterative process.”
When I asked to persuade kiddo brushing, the free, publicly available version of ChatGPT offered 12 suggestions. One of them is to tell your child a funny story about a “tooth superhero” who uses brushing to defeat monsters.
I typed a follow-up question: “What story can I tell about the toothy superhero?”
Further chatbot responses suggested a character named “Flora the Flosser”. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad.
I went back again and asked ChatGPT to make a unicorn story. The software spits back “Rinsewind the Rainbow Rinser,” a unicorn whose rainbow rinses are a shield to protect teeth.
ChatGPT can suggest many (mostly terrible) ideas. There may be the germ of a good idea somewhere that you can run with.
That’s what you should expect from ChatGPT, Will said.
He quoted a line from a 1990s Gin Blossoms song: “If you don’t expect too much from me, you won’t be disappointed.”
Learn what chatbots are best at
Chatbots can be amazing at explaining complicated topics like cryptocurrency as if you were 5 years old.
To understand this power, it helps to know that the software is archived from Reddit, which includes a forum called “Explain Like I’m Five”.
(Reddit is not happy that this is a free chatbot instructional aid.)
Similarly, there are many recipes on the internet. That makes ChatGPT good (but not perfect) for personal recipe planning.
When I typed into ChatGPT, “Suggest seven dinner options that use lots of beans and lentils and can be made ahead of time,” I thought the options were solid.
It included a chickpea salad with peppers, tomatoes and red onions with a lemon vinaigrette.
I told ChatGPT to “make a shopping list with the first four food ingredients” the AI spit out. And it did.
But since chatbots combine pieces of online information in sometimes nonsensical ways, you shouldn’t rely on AI recipe steps.
A chatbot can omit an essential ingredient or tell you when a dish isn’t gluten-free.
Again, you should treat ChatGPT less as a reliable cookbook and more as a meal-planning brainstorming partner.
Don’t get discouraged and don’t give up
When I tried AI chatbots, I was disappointed. Experiences have made me reluctant to spend time learning to make the technology work for me.
For example, I asked ChatGPT and Bing’s AI to create an itinerary for my New Jersey beach vacation last spring. The suggestions were either obvious or so different from me that I would have laughed at a friend making the same recommendations.
Will said that while chatbots are not perfect and not great in all respects, they are well worth the investment of your time.
That said, five minutes of travel planning with ChatGPT can give me some ideas for further research.
It doesn’t make the magical personal travel planner AI I want, but it’s something.