This article is a preview of The Tech Friend newsletter. Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Tuesday and Friday.
Writing about technology is my job, but I’m like most of you: I haven’t found much use for new types of artificial intelligence like ChatGPT.
Maybe you love ChatGPT and use it constantly. Most people don’t.
About two-thirds of respondents to a recent survey for Consumer Reports’ advocacy division said they hadn’t used an AI chatbot in the previous six months. A Pew survey from last summer also found most Americans had never tried ChatGPT.
If you’re in the no-AI majority, it’s fine to only pay a bit of attention to chatbots right now.
Tech nerds may yell at me, but for many tasks, chatbots aren’t worth your time or the risk of catastrophic mistakes. You’re better off with simpler technologies.
If we use chatbots for the wrong things — like using a leaf blower to blow-dry your hair — we risk feeling disappointed in the technology.
I’ll run through four examples to show what a chatbot can be good for, and when it may be the wrong choice.
For now, I recommend that most people start with Microsoft’s image-and-text AI called Copilot. (Until recently, the chatbot was called Bing. Maybe you saw that Copilot commercial during the Super Bowl.)
Do: Try a chatbot when you don’t know what word to use
Don’t: Use it to define words or identify synonyms
Example: “What’s another way to say ‘beautiful’ but without a romantic connotation?”
When you’re struggling to find just the right word, a web search or Merriam-Webster may not fit. Copilot did pretty well.
(If you ask exactly the same question to Copilot, you’ll likely get a different response. That’s how these chatbots work.)
Less useful: Use an online dictionary or thesaurus if you’re looking for a word spelling, definition or a synonym for “accustomed to.”
Do: Try a chatbot to make cool images from your imagination
Don’t: Use it to find more information about an image
Example: “Generate a photorealistic image of a long-eared owl flying through space.”
Try it yourself. (To generate images in Copilot, you need to sign into a Microsoft account.)
It’s not practical to create weird bird scenes. Just fun. Maybe you’d generate an image for a party invitation or to brainstorm a potential business logo.
Less useful: Take a photo and ask, “What kind of plant is this?”
I used three different photos of my house plant. Microsoft’s Copilot got it right twice. It’s an aglaonema. The chatbot also described the image background though I didn’t ask for that.
You don’t need an unreliable AI chatbot to identify plants, people, landmarks or logos. Use Google’s Lens app or aplant ID app such as Seek.
Do: Try it to summarize a long document
Don’t: Use it for personalized recommendations for products, restaurants or travel
Example: “Can you read this article and summarize it in bullet points?”
The article is an analysis of how government policy crashed American companies and empowered Chinese ones in the market for essential internet and phone equipment.
The fascinating essay has an 80-minute estimated reading time. The summary from Microsoft’s Copilot wasn’t perfect, but it was so good I uttered an expletive.
Less useful: I’ve found chatbots at best hit-or-miss for personalized recommendations.
I asked Copilot to recommend a road bicycle for a recreational cyclist like me who needs a comfortable bike for bad roads for $2,000 or less.
Copilot’s response appeared to parrot reviews on Cycling Weekly and Cycling News. Also Copilot blasted straight past my budget and suggested expensive racing bicycles that are wrong for a relative beginner.
Microsoft said that it is constantly refining the web results that AI chatbots rely on and that the company is committed to “improving the quality of this experience to make it a helpful tool for everyone.”
You could read those cycling websites and skip the chatbot. (I thought Google’s Gemini chatbot did much better at my bicycle shopping quest.)
When a chatbot spits out off-base replies, ask follow-up questions or scold it to do better. I tried, but the refined responses were odd and required more research. It wasn’t worth my effort.
Do: Get a head start on writing something difficult, dull or unfamiliar
Don’t: Use any of this verbatim
Example: My colleague Will Oremus asked Copilot to design a first practice for a youth soccer team.
Will described the AI suggestions as “meh” but an okay starting point for a beginner coach. He thought a paid version of ChatGPT was more helpful with the same question. Will was hoping for more novel ideas to make activities engaging for kids who aren’t self-motivated to do soccer drills.
Other people had success asking a chatbot to help write an obituary after providing an outline of the person’s life, or suggesting a rejection message after an awkward first date.
Less useful: Chatbots make up information constantly. Don’t use any writing that a chatbot spits out without editing it. Don’t ask a chatbot for factual information, either. Search Google or Wikipedia.