Based on neural networks and pre-trained large language models (LLMs) that have, in some cases, trillions of parameters to make sense of your queries and serve up sensible responses, AI chatbots are starting to influence everything from drafting marketing materials to writing computer code.
A global survey of businesspeople by consulting firm McKinsey released this month found that 79% of respondents have had at least some exposure to generative AI, while 22% say they are regularly using it in their work.
The biggest areas where the technology is making inroads is in “marketing and sales, product and service development, and service operations, such as customer care and back-office support,” McKinsey reported.
AI coming for white-collar work
That makes sense – economists have been telling us for the past few years that AI’s biggest impact will be in white-collar work – the knowledge economy that’s underpinned by language.
In New Zealand, many businesses are experimenting with generative AI, mainly for customer service chatbots and for summarising company information. It requires a cautious approach, particularly when you are using sensitive company data, or information about customers and partners. The government has issued interim guidance for the use of generative AI in the public sector, and many of the key principles apply in the business world too.
Cutting and pasting company information in the ChatGPT text box will feed that information back into the model developed by its creator, OpenAI, potentially exposing data in responses to other ChatGPT users, as electronics maker Samsung found to its embarrassment. The same goes for rival free-to-access conversational AI systems. However, OpenAI has an application programming interface (API) and a cloud-based version of ChatGPT available via the Microsoft Azure service, allowing data to stay private.
The key with generative AI is to understand where the data you input into these systems is going, how it is used, and who has access to it. Every organisation has obligations under the Privacy Act to protect and appropriately use individuals’ data.
In the meantime, it’s well worth experimenting with these tools, which are incredibly useful. Here are five AI apps I’m using which show plenty of promise to boost your productivity.
The chatbot that started the generative AI revolution, ChatGPT delivers remarkably insightful responses to your questions, particularly if you take time to develop text prompts that make the most of the system. It’s free to use via any web browser by going to chat.openai.com and registering an account. I use it as a sort of research assistant as an alternative to simply Googling topics.
ChatGPT is very good at generating generic summaries on issues, but be careful, it makes lots of factual errors, so you need to fact check the results. It also only produces answers based on information dating to September 2021, so for topical issues, such as asking it to summarise our political parties’ policies on climate change heading into Election 2023, you’ll be out of luck.
ChatGPT Plus is the premium version of the AI chatbot, which offers enhanced access, including faster responses, priority access to the system, and a host of plug-ins that let ChatGPT be used in other software services, which is when the service becomes really useful. The responses from ChatGPT Plus are generally better as it is based on GPT-4, whereas the free Chat GPT is based on the previous version GPT-3.5. ChatGPT Plus is expensive.
Price: Free version and US$20 a month for ChatGPT Plus.
Microsoft’s AI powered search engine lets you enter text prompts to get summaries of information rather than relying on the traditional collection of search results. Finally, search is getting an overhaul and based on GPT-4 which underpins the premium version of ChatGPT, Bing’s answers are up to date, but again, don’t rely on them being factually correct.
Bing Chat is available via the Edge and Chrome browsers and the Bing smartphone app. It’s very useful for conducting research, fleshing out context on a topic by asking follow-up questions. Up to 30 chats are allowed per session – the restriction is in place partly to prevent Bing Chat from ‘hallucinating’ – starting to make up answers.
Answers include useful references so you can click through to do your own fact-checking. You can use Bing Chat to ask OpenAI’s DALL-E 2 image generator to come up with images for you based on text prompts. The results are hit and miss, but it’s early days for so-called multimodal generative AI; it will get better.
Price: Free to use, needs a Microsoft log-in.
Microsoft Powerpoint has dominated the humble slide-deck presentation for decades, though the likes of Australian online graphics platform Canva allow you a greater level of creativity in developing your presos.
Beautiful.ai takes the concept further with Designerbot, letting you ask the chatbot questions to quickly design slides, brainstorm ideas and add graphics and photos. Dozens of templates get you started, then it’s just a matter of dragging and dropping elements onto the slides. If you spend a lot of time crafting presentations, Beautiful.ai definitely has the potential to save you time and give your slides a slicker look.
Price: Limited free version or premium from US$12 per month (US$144 billed annually)
AI-generated imagery is a controversial topic. Because it is informed by millions of images scraped from across the web, it draws on the creativity of artists and photographers, usually without any credit. That’s led to a flurry of lawsuits in the US to test whether AI-powered image generators are compliant with copyright law.
Still, trying to find quality images for your website, slides, or advertising usually leads you to overpriced and cliched stock images. Midjourney is adding a creative flourish with its AI-powered image generator. It has an odd interface, based as it is on the Discord messaging platform.
The upside of that is you get to participate in a community of image creators and learn from their work. You simply enter text directing the bot to create images and it will present you with initial iterations. Then you choose the image you like best and keep developing it with text instructions.
The results can be stunning, atmospheric artworks, though trying to recreate real-world objects or landmarks is an imperfect art - abstract or generic images perform better, which makes Midjourney useful for fleshing out documents and websites with AI-generated images.
Price: From US$10 per month (US$96 for an annual plan)
If sitting through lengthy video calls isn’t tedious enough, then you face the task of divvying up follow-up actions, making sure everyone is on the same page with a follow-up email or chat message. Fireflies takes the hassle out of meeting action points.
It records the call and does a good job at creating a transcript. But its AI bot Fred also does an incredible job of summarising the meeting, outlining the key talking points and identifying any action points that were discussed.
It’s particularly useful if you’ve missed a meeting and want to catch up on what was discussed – just get a colleague to send a link to the Fireflies recording and everything is there. Zoom and transcription service Otter offer elements of this, but Fireflies.ai does it best for video conference power uses. Works with Teams, Google Meet and Zoom.
Price: Free version or Pro version for US$10 per user, per month