When your bot is better than you

I expect most written communication will eventually be done by bots. I could train my bot by letting it read all my previous email and other writings. Eventually my bot would answer most of my email directly, though it could hold some aside to ask me whether they merited a personal response.

This sounds convenient, and in many ways it will be. I’ll have more time for taking walks and reading books. But think through the broader equilibrium. If more emails are read by bots, then more emails will be written by bots. Of course that is already the case, but in this new world the bot-composed emails will be at least as good as human emails, and at least as good at getting through whatever filters I set up to protect my time and attention.

A kind of arms race will ensue. Overall, I expect the number of quality messages and emails to rise. Woe unto those who do not have a very good filtering bot.

Imagine negotiating or discussing terms in such a world. I might receive a proposal from your bot. Is it a real, legally binding offer? Or is it simply a ruse to get me to reveal information about my negotiating strategy? In some cases bots might handle these problems smoothly and present both sides with a final settlement. In other cases, negotiators might insist on a face-to-face meeting, both to know they are getting “the real deal” and to limit the potential for back and forth. For some real-world interactions, online written communications will no longer be good enough.

Think about the college admissions essay, for example. Nowadays it is important. But if the bots become good at writing, applicants might have to show up for a personal interview instead. Countermeasures might then evolve. Maybe there aren’t enough admissions officers to conduct all of those interviews. So why not let the applicants spend two days together, tape all the proceedings, and let the bots issue ratings? They might even measure who told the most original jokes.

In this new world, skill at writing will count for much less, and personal charisma for much more. This is not necessarily a positive development. It will be harder to use writing as a measure of broader skill or intelligence.

Here is the rest of my Bloomberg column on the topic.


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