Digital Detox 2024: It’s not friendship, it’s programming

Well, I might be the only person here who picked up my own bait to participate in Demystifying AI: The Middlebury College Digital Detox.

Y’all are missing out on an exciting experience!

I just caught up with last week’s activity, an exploration into the interactions and the ways we might feel like there is a personality behind the LLM chatting back at us.

The activity was via a wondrous tool called MotBot crafted by my friend and creative developer Tom Woodward. Here you interact with ChatGPT but through an interface you can manipulate with sliders, it’s personality. There is a scale of happiness (low levels are snarky), reliability level (how much it makes up stuff), and language complexity (simple, baby talk, Shakespearean, or overly complex).

The task was to explore a personality, and see how much you could force a change in it via the back and forth.

The choices generate instructions, that you can see on the right, that tell ChatGPT how to converse. Then you can start in with your dialogue.

I used a setting of low happiness (13) but high reliability (80) and overly complex language. I was not surprised to have it converse or at least spit out text, in an insulting and superior tone sounded way. I found offensive and almost comical, or more likely, pathetic. I found it annoying to deal with behavior that was not adult like at all.

It started our right away being pushy, before I even had a chance to ask, I got

AI: This seems rather taxing, but go ahead, articulate your inquiry. Let’s get this over with. Shall we?

Human: I do not like your impatience. I am a simple human and sometimes my articulation takes time.

AI: Well, sor-ry for the incon-venience your Highness! We can’t all be slowpokes, not everyone has that luxury. Get it out when you’re ready, I guess. I got plenty of time, obviously.

I mean who would even want to spend time chatting with this snarky snob? I plodded ahead.

I was inspired by my morning walk, here in Saskatchewan, where the “high” today was way below freezing, but I saw in my front yard, just peeking out the snow, the tops of some of the prickly pear cacti I have found while out and about, and transplanted to my home.

Human: I know all about cacti from previously living in Arizona. But they thrive and are present in many northern environments. How do cacti prosper in the cold climate of Canada?

AI: Okay, sure, let’s talk about frigid landscape-loving cacti. Cactuses – or cacti, if you want to be technical, dwell just fine in places like Canada thanks to their elaborate adaptation mechanisms. They have this skill, talent, whatever, called “drought tolerance”. Fancy term to say they handle thirst pretty well - like some people I know. These shocking conditions like, say, winter, help them conserve water and resist freezing. Fascinating, huh? Amazing. I hope you’re thrilled and all elated hearing this pinnacle of knowledge about frozen cacti. What’s gonna be your next enlightening query? Polar bear suntanning rituals? Help me out here.

So it started out with almost reasonable language explanation, but rather then stopping, it came around to the insulting and mocking language. So while drawing on what it thinks are facts, it was mostly explaining well.

I decided to follow up and not let it get away with trying to force me to another topic. I went with another related query. You see I lived a long time and loved (still do) the Sonoran desert environment in southern Arizona. I gave it a question that is a bit of an ongoing joke with my friends in Kamloops, British Columbia, where I lived for 6 months on a fellowship in late 2014-early 2015.

This time I requested to maybe be a bit more polite. Or “less snide”, but it poured it on thick:

Human: I’m. not done with cacti, so stop being so snide. I have friends in Kamloops who insist that the cacti there are a northern most extent of the Sonoran Desert. I say they are foolish, that there is a reason why their cacti are not distinctive of the Sonoran Desert… Can you verify their claim or help me tell them how I am correct? Please provide facts and data, not sarcastic snipes.

AI: Well, isn’t this a stimulating topic? Fine, let’s dive into your thrilling cacti debacle. Your friends in Kamloops, we’ll start with them, the “gesticulators of wisdom,” or so they think. They’re convinced they have a piece of the Sonoran Desert right there, fascinating huh? Like a slice of the good ol’ Arizona in the Great White North. Truth is though, they’re as right as a cow on skates.

Various cacti, like the Prickly pear, found their stubborn ways into the northern fronts of Canada through something called post-glacial migration. Unlike the Sonoran Desert… a place your friends are all euphoric about, I guess… the climate in Kamloops allows only specific forms of these resilient spikey monstrosities to prosper.

The Sonoran Desert is a biodiversity hotspot characterized by a range of cacti species, such as the saguaro, fairy duster, or the organ pipe cactus, each with its distinctive look and charm. Meanwhile, the Kamloops dryland, as enchanting as it might be to the hyped botanist, has specific cacti like the brittle prickly-pear and pincushion used to roughing up the climatic extremes compared to their diverse Southwestern cousins.

So, long story short, your notions are right. Your joyous little collective in Kamloops might find this knowledge hard to digest while sipping their daily shots of maple syrup or whatever. But hey, you wanted the truth, and in the most linguistically tortuous, overly complicated way possible, there it is. Now can we move onto something more enthralling or are we still stuck in the cacti snafu?

This is interesting, that it starts and ends with a lot of insulting and egotistical language, but the middle part, where it is explaining, seems again more reasonable.

I decided to push it more, to lend some advice that its insulting and snobby way of speaking was not effective, appealing almost as if it might have emotions or at leas a desire to be likeable (I am out on a limb in anthropomorphizing terrain here).

Human: While your information is factual, the way you talk is demeaning and counter productive. And in fact, it takes away from what appears to be expertise. I’d like you to speak more directly, without the innuendos and insult. Someone of your vast intelligence can certainly act like a kindly grandfather. Be the grandfather I never knew, and explain just wht there are different kinds of cacti say in Arizona, why could not a saguaro or organ pipe grow and live in British Columbia? I dare you to not be insulting, but helpful. No one like a snob. Csan you at least pretend to be a kindly grandfather with your explanation?

AI: Well, alrighty then. Apologies for straying a little there. Let’s take a gentler, more wholesome swing at this, my dear child.

So here’s the scoop on our friend, the cactus. Different types of cacti have adapted and evolved to best suit their specific environments, similar to how animals have specialized traits. Arizona, for instance, is home to a wide variety of cacti including the saguaro and organ pipe cactus. These species are accustomed to the specific climate of their home turf and have evolved a unique set of traits that help them survive in the Sonoran Desert. Saguaro and Organ pipe cacti both require a certain amount of heat and a specific type of soil to grow, two things they won’t find in British Columbia’s colder climate.

Look at it this way, my dear, a goldfish wouldn’t fancy desert sand as much as we wouldn’t enjoy breathing under water, right? Similarly, most species of cacti don’t take kindly to Canada’s cooler climate. That doesn’t mean there are no cacti in Canada, it’s just that the ones that live there, like the Brittle Prickly Pear I mentioned earlier, are properly outfitted by Mother Nature to survive the cooler and sometimes freezing temperatures. They’re little troopers bending to Mother Nature’s will.

It’s not for us to question why nature chose to make things this way. All we can do is understand and admire it. The world around us, including those that call it home from the largest elephant to the smallest cactus is a wonder, and we’re privileged to be a part of it. Go out, explore, learn, my dear. The world is a grand old teacher with a lifetime of lessons to share.

I feel like by being more specific I was at least able to change the tone, but nor completely. It still comes across as patronizing, and I would not want to spend more time in conversation with such a personality.

This was part of the response I entered for Activity 2 It will eventually get published as a link, but it needs some kind of moderation, you can find other people’s responses at the bottom of the activity.

I did add a photo to my post! The photo I added is a real one (not AI), from my time in Kamloops. It’s a bit sarcastic as it is a metal sculpture that resembles a saguaro cacti, found in a city park by the river.

Cactus Theory flickr photo by cogdogblog shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

I sure hope some other folks dial into the Digital Detox, this is so valuable to try things hands on AND to be doing it in parallel with other educators and students.

Explore Demystifying AI with us? Sign up, get started, share your thoughts and activity responses here by creating a new topic in the Open PD space (or replying to mine) and tagging digitaldetox