BEST REGARDS, HUMAN

Bots are starting to sound more human-like than most humans

Obsession
Language
Obsession
Language

As humans, we like to think of ourselves as unpredictable and unique, our thoughts and emotions separate from machines. We are not algorithms.

But we are losing our humanness online. Despite the illusion of care and enthusiasm, many of our digital interactions have become botifed. We rely on cut-and-paste platitudes, canned email templates, and superficial email signatures to move our days along quickly and effortlessly. In fact, much of our communication could have been done more efficiently by a bot.

We generally view the machine/human divide as a one-way street of advancing technology. Machines, we are repeatedly told, are becoming more human-like—but humans are also becoming more botifed.

What does this mean for the philosophical difference between bots and humans? Our very conception of humanness is based on a level of thought—consciousness—that machines lack. But as our digital communication decreases in thoughtfulness, effort, and originality, it also becomes less human. While bot communication is evolving, human communication is de-evolving.

At its core, a bot is a simple computer program that automates a repetitive task. When it comes to communication, humans aim to form bonds. Bots, on the other hand, aim to follow a script that quickly provides information. When used for chatting online, chatbot programs simulate human conversation by relying on an if this/then that (IFTTT) process. For example, if you write “Hello,” then a bot might be programmed to automatically respond, “Hey! I hope you’re having a great day.”

 By becoming more bot-like in our communication, we are devaluing the very quality that separates us from machines. But humans are also guilty of the IFTTT process, automating many of their interactions but cloaking them in a veneer of authenticity. If we distinguish bots from humans based on being automated versus thinking and feeling, our decreasing level of deliberate and thoughtful communication is making us more bot than human.

But why are we acting this way? It might be because we have a limited amount of time and an unlimited amount of online relationships. In an effort to solve this imbalance, we are desperately trying to be more efficient with the time we put into each connection. When we don’t have the time to provide the necessary thought and emotional depth that are hallmarks of human communication, we adopt the tools and linguistic simplicity of bots. But when our communication is focused on methods of scaling relationships instead of true connection, the process removes the thought, emotion, and volition that makes that communication human.

LinkedIn: For example, LinkedIn is filled with botified interactions that have the appearance of intimacy and thought on the outside but contain an utterly empty center. In fact, these kinds of non-personal personal auto-fill options are so ridiculed they have become memes.

Consider a frequent interaction on LinkedIn: the new job notification. When I am notified about someone’s new job, I have two choices: I can click a Like button, or I can click the “Say Congrats” button, which auto-populates the message, “Congrats on the new job!” In this way, LinkedIn is altering what I might organically say by offering its template.

Facebook: Another common example of this is the obligatory Facebook birthday message. After notifying a user as to who is having a birthday, Facebook nudges us toward conversation. “Let them know you’re thinking about them!” they say. The action of wishing someone “HBD!!” on Facebook is less internal volition and more knee-jerk, bot-like behavior. We are acting in a IFTTT way, typing out a generalized statement of celebration for public consumption on the request of a social-media goliath.

Email: Email etiquette is also littered with these practices. Given the sheer volume of communication, email messages are often reduced to general platitudes—“I hope you’re well!” “Just checking in!”—and canned responses. We lack the necessary time to give each email part of our actual personality, so we respond in an IFTTT fashion. Startups like Kylie.ai, which promises to “automate your personality” when responding to emails, continue to blur the line between humanness and botness.

But is it best to say something botified, or to say nothing at all? To not have the professional benefit of effortless congratulating someone you barely know on their new job? Of wishing a high-school friend you haven’t spoken to in ten years happy birthday? Or of politely signing off every email with a simulated smile?

 But is it best to say something botified, or to say nothing at all? The rise of bots in communication is bringing the true value of human communication into focus. Future conversations may be better served by outsourcing transactional questions (i.e. “What time is the meeting?”) to services like x.ai, while dedicating more time to craft genuine displays of emotional communication. Instead of humans acting bot-like when responding to job notifications on LinkedIn and birthday notifications on Facebook, we can use these prompts as potential opportunities to build on a relationship with genuine curiosity and emotional investment.

So far, no bot has been able to pass the Turing Test, which is when a machine can imitate human responses to the point where we wrongly believe that the response came from a human. But many tech experts don’t think we’re far off. Famed futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil has pinpointed 2029 as the year where bots will be indistinguishable from humans. Kurzweil, who serves as an engineering director for Google, is currently developing a custom-made chatbot that would mimic your style and personality after being fed data.

As we start to speak more like machines and machines start to speak more like us, the differentiation between the two is shifting. Instead of a machines imitating human communication, us humans are starting to emulate machines; we are providing a facsimile of humanity as opposed to providing actual thought. In order to fully comprehend the change in communication, it may be best to not consider our interactions as either human or bot, but as a continuum on a scale from human to bot.

This is a seismic shift in human interaction. By becoming more bot-like in our communication, we are devaluing the very qualities that separate us from machines—our emotional intelligence and originality. In order to retain our humanness, we need to turn off our IFTTT brains and return to truly, genuinely, communicating.

You can follow David on Twitter at @TechEthicist. Learn how to write for Quartz Ideas. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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