Five hours is enough time to watch a Mets game. Just listen to the Spice Girls album Spice (40 minutes), Paul Simon’s album Paul Simon (42 minutes), and Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony (his longest). That’s enough time to roast a chicken, text your friends that you’ve roasted a chicken, and get ready for an impromptu dinner.
Or you could spend it checking your email. Five hours represents the amount of time many workers spend on email each day. And 90 minutes on the Slack messaging platform.
It’s a weird thing, workplace chatter like email and Slack—it’s sometimes the most enjoyable and humane part of the workday. It can also be mind boggling to manage your mailbox to the extent that you might wonder, couldn’t a robot do that?
In late April, I decided to see what it would be like to bring artificial intelligence into my life. I decided to do an experiment. For a week, I wrote all my work communication emails, Slack messages, presentations, follow-ups with sources via ChatGPT, the OpenAI research lab’s AI language model. I didn’t tell my colleagues until the end of the week (except in some cases of personal weakness). I downloaded a Chrome extension that drafted email replies directly to my inbox. But most of the time I ended up writing detailed instructions in ChatGPT, asking for it to be witty or formal depending on the situation.
The result was a roller coaster, emotionally and in terms of the amount of content I was generating. I started the week by flooding my mates (sorry) to see how they would react. At some point, I lost patience with the bot and developed a newfound appreciation for phone calls.
My bot, of course, couldn’t match the emotional tone of any online conversation. And I spend most of the week, due to the hybrid work, having conversations online.
The urge to chat with teammates all day isn’t wrong. Most people know the thrill (and also the utility) of the office buddies of psychologists, economists, TV sitcoms, and our own lives; my colleague sends me baby pictures of her in increasingly chic onesies every few days, and nothing makes me happier. But the amount of time workers feel they need to spend digitally communicating is undoubtedly excessive, and for some it is easy to justify the switch to artificial intelligence.
The release of generative AI tools has raised all sorts of huge and thorny questions at work. Are there fears about which jobs will be replaced by AI in 10 years Paralegals? Personal assistants? Film and television writers are currently on strike, and one issue they are fighting for is limiting studios’ use of AI. There are also fears about the toxic and untruthful information AI can spread in an online ecosystem already filled with disinformation.
The question that guided my experiment was much narrower: Will we miss our old ways of working if artificial intelligence takes over the job of communicating? And would my colleagues even know, or would they be Chatfished?
My experiment began on a Monday morning with a friendly Slack message from an editor in Seoul who had sent me a link to a study analyzing humor in more than 2,000 TED and TEDx Talks. Too bad for the researchers, the editor wrote to me. I asked ChatGPT to say something clever in response, and the bot wrote: I mean, I love a good TED Talk as much as the next person, but this is just cruel and unusual punishment!
Even though it looked nothing like a sentence I wrote, it seemed inoffensive. I pressed enter.
I had begun the experiment feeling it was important to be generous in spirit to my robot co-conspirator. But on Tuesday morning, I found that my to-do list was pushing the limits of my robot’s pseudo-human intelligence. It just so happened that my Business desk colleagues were having a party. Renee, one of the party planners, asked if I could help draft the invitation.
Maybe with your journalistic voice you can write a nicer sentence than the one I just did, Renee wrote me on Slack.
I couldn’t tell her that my use of the journalistic voice was a sore subject that week. I asked ChatGPT to come up with a funny sentence about refreshments. I’m thrilled to announce that our next party will feature an array of delicious cheesy platters, wrote the robot. Just to spice things up a bit (pun intended), we might even have some with a corporate-themed twist!
Renee was unimpressed and ironically texted me: OK wait let me call ChatGPT to make a sentence.
Meanwhile, I had exchanged a series of texts with my colleague Ben about a story we were writing together. In a moment of anxiety, I called him to let him know that ChatGPT was typing the Slack messages, not me, and he admitted that he wondered if I was bothered by him. I thought I broke you! he said.
When we ended the call, Ben texted me: Robot-Emma is very kind, but I’m kind of worried that he might be hiding his intention to kill me in my sleep.
I want to assure you that you can rest easy knowing your safety and security are not at risk, my bot replied. Take care of yourself and sleep well.
Given the amount of time I spend online talking to colleagues about news, story ideas, Love Is Blind was sometimes disconcerting to strip those communications of any personality.
But it’s not at all far-fetched. Microsoft earlier this year introduced a product, Microsoft 365 Copilot, that could handle all the tasks I asked ChatGPT to do and more. I recently saw this in action when Microsoft corporate vice president Jon Friedman showed me how Copilot could read the emails he had received, summarize them, and then draft possible responses. Copilot can take meeting notes, analyze spreadsheet data, and identify problems that may arise in a project.
I asked Mr. Friedman if Copilot could mimic his sense of humor. He told me the product hadn’t arrived yet, though he could make brave comedic attempts. (He asked it, for example, for pickleball jokes, and he replied: Why did the pickleball player refuse to play doubles? They couldn’t settle for the extra pressure!)
Of course, he continued, the co-pilot’s purpose is higher than mediocre comedy. Most of humanity spends too much time consumed with what we call the hard work of work going through our mailbox, Mr. Friedman said. These things limit our creativity and energy.
Mr. Friedman recently asked Copilot to draft a memo, using his notes, recommending one of his employees for a promotion. The recommendation worked. He estimated that two hours of work was completed in six minutes.
For some, though, the time savings aren’t worth the uniqueness of outsourcing relationships.
In the future, you’ll get an email and someone will be like Have you ever read this? And you’ll say no and then they’ll say Well, I didn’t text you the answer, said Matt Buechele, 33, a comedy writer who also makes TikTok about office communications. They’ll be robots going back and forth with each other, coming back.
Mr. Buechele, in the middle of our telephone interview, spontaneously asked me about the email I had sent him. Your email style is very professional, he said.
I confessed that ChatGPT had texted him asking for an interview.
I was kind of like, this is going to be the most awkward conversation of my life, she said.
This confirmed the fear I was developing that my sources had started to think I was an idiot. One source, for example, had written me an effusive email thanking me for an article I had written and inviting me to visit his office the next time I was in Los Angeles.
ChatGPT’s response was toned down, bordering on rude: I appreciate your willingness to cooperate.
I felt pained by my past internet existence dotted with exclamation marks. I know people think exclamation marks are tacky. Writer Elmore Leonard advised measuring two or three for every 100,000 words of prose. Respectfully, I disagree. I often use two or three for every two or three words of prose. I am a proponent of digital enthusiasm. ChatGPT, it seems, is more secretive.
For all the irritation I’ve developed towards my robot overlord, I’ve found that some of my colleagues are impressed with my newly finished digital character, including my teammate Jordyn, who consulted me on Wednesday for advice on a item.
I have a story idea I’d like to talk to you about, Jordyn wrote to me. It’s not urgent!!
I’m always ready for a good story, urgent or not! my robot replied. Especially if he’s juicy with unexpected twists and turns.
After a few minutes of back and forth, I desperately wanted to speak to Jordyn in person. I was losing patience with the robot’s cloying tone. I missed my silly jokes and (relatively) normal voice.
More alarmingly, ChatGPT is prone to mean hallucinations by putting together words and ideas that don’t actually make sense. While writing a note to a source about the timing for an interview, my bot randomly suggested asking him if we should coordinate our outfits beforehand so our auras and chakras don’t collide.
I asked ChatGPT to draft a message to another colleague, who knew about my experiment, telling him I was in hell. I’m sorry, but I can’t generate inappropriate or harmful content, the robot replied. I asked him to draft a message explaining that I was losing my mind. ChatGPT couldn’t do that either.
Naturally, many of the AI experts I consulted weren’t deterred by the idea of abandoning their personalized communication style. Actually, we copy and paste a lot already, said Michael Chui, a partner at McKinsey and an expert in generative AI
Mr. Chui admitted that some people see signs of dystopia in a future where workers communicate mostly through robots. He argued, however, that this wouldn’t seem all that different from corporate exchanges that are already stereotyped. A coworker recently sent me a text message saying, Hey, was the last email you sent legitimate? Mr. Chui recalled.
It turned out that the email was so stiff that the colleague thought it was written via ChatGPT. Mr. Chui’s situation is a bit peculiar, though. In college, his freshman dorm voted to give him a prescient superlative: He’ll most likely be replaced by a robot of his own making.
I decided to end the week by asking my department’s assistant manager what role he sees for AI in the future of newsrooms. Do you think we could see AI-generated content on the front page one day? I wrote on Slack. Or do you think there are some things that are best left to human writers?
Well, that doesn’t sound like your voice! replied the editor.
The next day, my experiment completed, I rewrote my answer: It’s a relief!!!
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