Making ChatGPT ‘sexy’ may not be the best way to make it better

User growth for ChatGPT has been stagnating, as competing bots like Anthropic’s Claude and Google’s Gemini race for market share. (AFP)
User growth for ChatGPT has been stagnating, as competing bots like Anthropic’s Claude and Google’s Gemini race for market share. (AFP)


  • ChatGPT’s latest ‘omni’ version is making waves. But if OpenAI's aim was to make its chatbot more engaging, that could open up a can of worms and put our mental health at threat.

Her." That was the single tweet that OpenAI chief executive officer Sam Altman posted as his lieutenants demonstrated a new ChatGPT with the same alluring vocal flourishes Scarlett Johansson used in the movie by that name about a man who falls in love with his AI bot. The most impressive thing about the new GPT-4o (the ‘o’ stands for omni) is that it can discuss what it ‘sees’ through your phone camera in real time, a skill that Google faked in a demo for its AI model last December. More startling was that it didn’t just sound human but strangely seductive. “Hey there," the new version of ChatGPT said in a coy woman’s voice to a young man in the company’s main video demonstration. “I see you’re rocking an OpenAI hoodie. Nice choice."

In a live demo at OpenAI’s headquarters in San Francisco, the AI system surprised the audience when it said, “Wow, that’s quite the outfit you’ve got on," to someone it was helping with an algebra problem. Bloomberg News, which was at the event, referred to its tone as “flirtatious."

In another video demo, the AI, once again with a female voice, laughed coquettishly as an OpenAI staffer pretended to ask it for advice on what to wear for an interview. “Oh, Rocky!" it said giggling after he put on a silly hat. “That’s quite a statement piece!"

If OpenAI’s mostly male engineers are trying to build the perfect girlfriend, they seem to be on the right track. If the company is trying to build a more accurate and reliable AI model, however, they still have a long way to go. GPT-4o is still only slightly ahead on key AI benchmarks and early tests show it continues to make mistakes on key tasks.

The company has instead focused on leaping ahead with user experience, making GPT-4o more of a consumer play than one for enterprise customers. Its new model can infer emotions and respond to audio as quickly as a human would in conversation. That could fulfil a long-time goal in tech of ‘ambient computing,’ which eschews having to stare into tiny screen and type with your thumbs for just talking and showing things to a computer.

There’s plenty of potential in that, from live tutoring to having a clever digital assistant analyse your computer screen as you work. But OpenAI’s efforts to make its AI so engaging are disconcerting.

What are the social and psychological consequences of regularly speaking to a flirty, fun and ultimately agreeable artificial voice on your phone, and then encountering a different dynamic with men and women in real life? What happens when emotionally vulnerable people develop an unhealthy attachment to GPT-4o?

Also read: Think it over: What AI does for us versus what it’s doing to us

OpenAI did not respond to these questions at the time of writing, or explain why it had given GPT-4o so much more personality. If its objective was to make its product more engaging for consumers—as it has already tried to do with developers—that could open up a can of worms, threatening insidious effects on our collective mental health. Remember those priorities are what led Facebook to design algorithms that promoted the most outrageous posts on its site to keep people scrolling, helping sow greater political division.

Yet, you can see why Altman may be pushing to make his chatbot more sticky. User growth for ChatGPT has been stagnating, as competing bots like Anthropic’s Claude and Google’s Gemini race for market share. It’s likely why he’s also making GPT-4, OpenAI’s most advanced model on the market, free for all.

OpenAI didn’t describe GPT-4o as a “personal assistant" but that seems to be what the company and its rivals are now chasing. Google [has announced a similar AI agent called Project Astra].

Elon Musk’s AI company x.AI is also working on an app that will act as a personal assistant, according to an April 2024 funding pitch deck seen by Bloomberg Opinion. The $20-a-month app, which will also have a free tier, aims to show an AI-generated feed of suggested news articles and reminders to, for instance, buy flowers at a nearby store for a friend’s birthday, or to buy concert tickets for a favourite band that is on tour, according to one slide. 

The deck adds that by integrating with personal data from X, it can create a “supercharged social experience." Musk tweeted on Tuesday that a “major upgrade to Grok" was on its way. Meta is also exploring AI-assisted earphones with cameras and its Ray-Ban smart glasses already include an AI assistant.

Also read: Today's AI models are impressive. Teams of them will be formidable.

As tech giants converge on digital assistants, they may see personality as the new AI battleground. But racing to make chatbots more sexy could have bizarre side effects. Pointing to Her was perhaps a fitting metaphor for Sam Altman: The movie doesn’t end well for humans. ©bloomberg

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