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How a chatbot can actually change people’s habits

(EDITORIAL) So many brands are creating chatbot functions and say they’re “building” a chatbot, but think of your users as you expand into this universe – define what you’re doing first.

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It’s no secret there are a lot of chatbots these days. The latest trend: chatbots wanting to change people’s habits, and not all are created equal. As these types of bots become more prevalent, it poses the question: do they actually work? Answer: sometimes, and it depends.

Do chatbots actually affect behavior?

As a founder of an AI chatbot financial assistant, I know the opportunities and challenges that come from influencing daily behavior. When it comes to habits, you face the difficulties of say, marketing a vitamin versus a painkiller. I want to build software that will enact actual change, but let’s be real – people aren’t as motivated in the mundane, everyday decisions, because they don’t think it matters.

I’ve seen my fair share of chatbots — both impressive and crappy — come and go, and I can confidently say that chatbots/AI assistants will only work if behavioral science is implemented. This must be intentionally created throughout the software — from UX to UI to copywriting.

When there’s not an actual person on the other side of the conversation, the bot needs to use other motivating factors — otherwise, users won’t take it seriously. (Remember SmarterChild on AIM? Case in point.)

Real-life example: Open Habits

Let’s explore this further and look at new startup, Open Habits.

First off, the origin of Open Habits is pretty interesting. Twitter and Product Hunt user Aiden Buis tweeted a fun concept – a self-imposed hackathon where he would build and ship a SaaS product within 100 hours, and document every step.

It’s built as a bot within the app Telegram, so others can track your progress. But with the Open Habits bot, it isn’t geared towards a specific habit or interest. A user can track any habit they want to change. It seems like a good idea for flexibility, but in reality, this typically sets someone up for failure.

Motivations for different habits aren’t one size fits all, but specific tactics need to be used depending on the desired habit to change.

Overall, I’d give it an 7/10. For a quickly shipped software, it’s not all that bad.

But to actually create change, here are some guidelines to keep in mind:

1. Go easy on the notifications.

Let’s look at a software that fails at this, MyFitnessPal. I kind of shiver just thinking about the notifications I used to receive. An everyday notification typically means someone will turn off your notifications or flat-out ignore them. Make the notifications actually helpful, not constant or annoying, and for the love of God, please space out the timing.

2. Show the long-term picture for daily habits.

Show your users what they’re doing does matter and does lead to big change.

For example: If you’re talking about weight loss, show how swapping one dessert for fruit once a week can equate to X or Y calories or pounds lost a year. If it’s financial habits, show how saving even $1 a day can grow your financial future into $X. (Acorns does an excellent job of this.)

3. Do your research on favorable or unfavorable language.

If you’re trying to change someone’s habits, prepare to get to know as many experts as possible in your field. Read all the books, meet all the professors, and get to know all the researchers that study far beyond what you’re doing. Prime example: financial app users hate the term “budgeting” because it’s associated with negative feelings, and we only knew this because of This is why it’s crucial to become best friends with the leaders in your industry.

As always, this is simply a starting point for guidelines to keep in mind whether you’re building or just using a chatbot. Look at the competitors, see what works best for you and what motivates you, then go from there.

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Elise Graham Kennedy is a staff writer at The American Genius and Austin-based digital strategist. She's a seasoned entrepreneur, started and sold two companies, and was on a TV show for her app. You can usually find her watching The Office on her couch with her dog and husband.

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Silicon Valley created tech for your family that’s too addictive for theirs

(TECHNOLOGY) Tech inventors are big on innovating and advancing tools, but a growing parenting trend in tech circles seems hypocritical.

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I consider myself an older Millennial. I was slowly but surely introduced to technologies as they became mass-marketable, but they didn’t affect every moment of my day-to-day life. I learned how to use computers in elementary school, I chatted on AOL as a preteen, and when I was 16, my parents gave me my own cell phone “for emergencies.” I promptly dropped it under the car seat, where it remained for a year, before I or my parents even noticed that it was missing.

In less than a generation, our relationship to cell phones has transformed completely. For one thing, my first cell phone didn’t have a touch screen. It didn’t have an internet connection. Hell, for an entire year, I didn’t even use the damn thing.

Fast forward to 2018, when your children can learn to use an iPad at the same time that they learn to use a toilet.

Interestingly, the tech whizzes who designed much of the technology that now pervades nearly every moment of our lives seem wariest of the negative impact screen time might have on kids. The NYT reports that the trend amongst Silicon Valley parents is to severely limit or even ban cell phone use by their children.

Parents in all echelons of the tech industry are limiting their kids’ exposure. Steve Jobs kept iPads out of the hands of his young children. The Gates offspring didn’t receive cell phones until high school (just like me, in 2001), and Tim Cook discourages his nephew from using social networks.

These concerned parents describe the addictive potential and negative consequences of screen time in increasingly pessimistic terms.

Athena Chavarria, a former Facebook employee, believes that “the devil lives in our phones and is wreaking havoc on our children.”

Chris Anderson (yes that Chris Anderson), former editor of Wired and founder of GeekDad, says that when it comes to screens, “On a scale between candy and crack cocaine, it’s closer to crack cocaine.”

Parents are even making contractual agreements to make sure their kids don’t use screens while under the supervision of their nanny or babysitter.

Like basically every human idea or invention ever, connected, screened devices reveal that our ability to create new technologies far outpaces our ability to understand the consequences – positive or negative – of that tech.

Those closest to the situation – the inventors themselves – are often the first ones to sound the alarm when they realize that their hard-won advancements may not have been such a great idea after all.

Said Chris Anderson of the addictive nature of cell phones, “We thought we could control it. And this is beyond our power to control.”

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Amazingly fun tech toys that are secretly educational

(TECHNOLOGY) STEM toys for children are fun *and* educational – here are some that have caught our eye.

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There’s a new trend amongst startups – and amongst kids’ toys: educational playthings that teach your little ones STEM skills like programming and coding.

Toys that double as learning tools are nothing new, but digital, connected technology still is, and so is the idea that your toddler can get a leg up in the tech industry by getting an early start.

Parents, universities, and economists seem concerned that acquiring STEM skills will soon be the only way to guarantee a good job, despite reports from the U.S. Census Bureau that 3 out of 4 STEM majors end up in non-STEM fields anyway.

So if your kid is more into, say, baseball or dancing than computers, you might be wasting the pretty pennies these high-powered educational toys will cost you.

Kids, with their alarmingly short attention spans, are as likely to toss these toys back into the toybox as any other. But if your wee one seems to have a knack for all things technical – or if you’d just rather see them learn how to build a device than passively stare at one all day – then check out TC’s guide to STEM toys.

Even though these toys are marketed towards the younger set, I found myself a little envious, wishing I could take a few for a test drive – especially since many of them are modern, high-tech reboots on old standbys from my childhood.

Lego’s Boost Creative Toolbox uses the same classic Lego blocks, but allows you to animate and program your creations.

Several products cross-market with some of my childhood favorites; Dash Robotics has teamed up with Mattel to make Jurassic World robots, and Kano makes a Harry Potter Coding Kit that teaches kids to program a wand that can interact with digital content. There’s even Electro Dough which is basically electrically-conductive Play-Doh that can light up and make sounds. I want!

In fact, a lot of the toys combine arts ‘n’ crafts with STEM lessons. Adafruits makes a marker with electronically conductive ink that can light up circuits and interact with computer programs, and an electronic pencil that synthesizes music. Root Robotic’s little bot can draw pictures and compose songs.

For the more straightforward tech nerds, Makeblock, Evo, Robo Wunderkind, and Wonder Workshop all make programmable robots – a big step up from the “artificially intelligent” Furby’s of my childhood. Sphero’s Bolt is a ball-shaped robot, while Airblock makes a programmable hovercraft.

There’s the Pi-top Modular Laptop that teaching kids coding, and there are even opportunities for kids to build their own electronics; Kano offers a build-it-yourself computer.

The holidays are just around the corner – but whether STEM educational toys will be the next Tickle Me Elmo remains to be seen.

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A deepfakes creator for text so realistic it can’t be made public yet

(TECHNOLOGY) You know about video deepfakes, but the technology exists for doing convincing deepfakes for text. It’s so good that they aren’t ready to release it to the public yet…

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Artificial intelligence is being used to complete more and more human tasks. But as of right now, news stories you read online – including all the articles here on American Genius – have been written by real human beings.

Until recently, even the most intelligent computers couldn’t be trained to recreate the complex rules and stylistic subtleties of language. AI-generated text would often wander off topic or mix up the syntax and lack context or analysis.

However, a non-profit called OpenAI says they have developed a text generator that can simulate human writing with remarkable accuracy.

The program is called GPT2. When fed any amount of text, from a few words to a page, it can complete the story, whether it be a news story or a fictional one.

You already know about video deepfakes, but these “deepfakes for text” stay on subject and match the style of the original text. For example, when fed the first line of George Orwell’s 1984, GPT2 created a science-fiction story set in a futuristic China.

This improved text generator is much better at simulating human writing because it has learned from a dataset that is “15 times bigger and broader” than its predecessor, according to OpenAI research director, Dario Amodei.

Usually researchers are eager to share their creations with the world – but in the case, the Elon Musk-backed organization has, at least of the time being, withheld GPT2 from the public out of fear of what criminals and other malicious users might do with it.

Jack Clark, OpenAI’s head of policy, says that the organization needs more time to experiment with GPT2’s capabilities so that they can anticipate malicious uses. “If you can’t anticipate all the abilities of a model, you have to prod it to see what it can do,” he says. “There are many more people than us who are better at thinking what it can do maliciously.”

Some potential malicious uses of GPT2 could include generating fake positive reviews for products (or fake negative reviews of competitors’ products); generating SPAM messages; writing fake news stories that would be indistinguishable from real news stories; and spreading conspiracy theories.

Furthermore, because GPT2 learns from the internet, it wouldn’t be hard to program GPT2 to produce hate speech and other offensive messages.

As a writer, I can’t think of very many good reasons to use an AI story generator that doesn’t put me out of job. So I appreciate that the researchers at OpenAI are taking time to fully think through the implications before making this Pandora’s box of technology available to the general public.

Says Clark, “We are trying to develop more rigorous thinking here. We’re trying to build the road as we travel across it.”

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