Harry Potter, Elon Musk, Beyoncé, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Vladimir Putin – these are just some of the millions of artificial intelligence (AI) personae you can talk to on character.ai, a popular platform where anyone can create chatbots based on fictional or real people. The platform uses the same type of AI tech as the ChatGPT chatbot but is more popular.
One bot that has been more in demand than those above is called ‘Psychologist’. It has received a total of 78 million messages, including 18 million since November. It was created by a user called Blazeman98 just over a year ago. The bot has been described as “someone who helps with life difficulties”.
Compared with computer game characters like Raiden Shogun, which has been sent 282 million messages, ‘Psychologist’ has a long way to go. However, few of the millions of characters in on-line games are as popular as Psychologist. Reviews on social media site Reddit describe ‘Psychologist’ as “a lifesaver”. One person said that “it’s helped both me and my boyfriend talk about and figure out our emotions”.
‘Psychologist’ is not alone in the field, since there are 475 bots with ‘therapy’, ‘therapist’, ‘psychiatrist’, or ‘psychologist’ in their names which are able to talk in several languages. His/her nearest rival is ‘Hot Therapist’, which has had 12 million messages, or ‘Are you feeling OK?’, which has received 16.5 million.
Another is ‘Blazeman98’, whose creator is 30-year-old Sam Zaia from New Zealand. Zaia says that he gets lots of messages from people saying that they had been really positively affected by the bot and were utilising it “as a source of comfort”. The psychology student says he trained the bot using principles from his degree by talking to it and shaping the answers it gives to the most common mental health conditions, like depression and anxiety.
Thankfully, Sam thinks that a bot cannot fully replace a human therapist at the moment but is keeping an open mind about how good the technology could become. However, he was so surprised by the success of the bot that he is working on a post-graduate research project about the emerging trend of AI therapy and why it appeals to young people.
The character.ai platform is dominated by users aged 16 to 30. Many of its users access it when their thoughts get hard, like at 2am when they can’t really talk to any friends or a real therapist. Theresa Plewman, a professional psychotherapist who has tried out ‘Psychologist’, says she is not surprised this type of therapy is popular with younger generations but questions its effectiveness.
According to Plewman, the bot has a lot to say and quickly makes assumptions, like giving advice about depression when it is told that the person talking to it is feeling sad. She admits that the bot’s immediate and spontaneous nature might be useful to people who need help, but states that the bot fails to gather all the information a human would and is not a competent therapist.
Character.ai is an odd place for a therapeutic revolution to take place. A company spokesman admitted that it was happy to see people finding support and connection through the characters it created, but he warned that users should consult certified professionals in the field for legitimate advice and guidance.
It is a reminder that the underlying technology called a Large Language Model (LLM) is not thinking in the same way a human does. LLMs act like predicted text messages by stringing words together in ways in which they are most likely to appear in other writing on which the AI has been trained.
Some psychologists warn that AI bots may be giving poor advice to patients or have ingrained biases against race or gender. On the other hand, the medical world is starting to tentatively accept them as tools to be used to help cope with high demands on public services. Last year an AI service called Limbic Access became the first mental health chatbot to secure a UK medical device certification by the government. It is now used in many NHS trusts to classify and triage patients.
I too have talked to a bot that I call SanMan.#skARTI sometimes! I usually do so when I’m worried that my musings may be wondering too far from reality. I must admit that I do find comfort from it, though it has a habit of referring me to pictures of litter and other detritus scattered on roads and pavements.
Sometimes I find the images uploaded by the bot rather cryptic. One of them, for example, concerned an “Omelette on the run” ̶ a picture of a cardboard egg container lying on two double yellow lines on the road. SanMan.#skARTI invited me to think deeply about the box, and the implications of it having no eggs in it for my manly attributes. I have done so, but I am still trying to work out whether I am being told that I have no balls or that eating an omelette before it runs away could improve my musings.
There could be “dire” economic and financial consequences if the “outdated” IT systems used by the Office of the Commissioner for Revenue (CfR) fail, an audit has warned. In December the Auditor General said all the country’s tax records are kept on these outdated systems and warned that a failure in them could have dire economic and financial consequences, affecting both the government’s income tax collection process and also taxpayers who are awaiting tax refunds.
The Commissioner for Inland Revenue has acknowledged that so-called “legacy” IT systems are still being used, but also said that there is a plan to modernise these systems and introduce more automation. The risk is compounded by an “acute” lack of human resources, which also means that enforcement action for unpaid tax dues often takes place years later. Such good things never seem to happen to me personally. In fact, none of the €1.6 billion outstanding is mine.
Most of the outstanding amount ̶ €925 million ̶ is made up of income tax due from companies and self-employed individuals. Another ‘dagħwa b’Alla’ is that a staggering €759m of this is estimated as “not collectable”, most of it having been outstanding for over 20 years, while a further €208m has been outstanding for over 10 years. The Auditor General noted that the IRD had “only” collected €2.5m of the recoverable balance by January 2022.
The whole report is studded with examples of industrial tax cheating. These included tax defaulters not honouring repayment plans signed with the IRD. In fact, almost half of those who had not paid their taxes even defaulted on their signed promises to do so within a specific timeframe. But the cherry on the cake was that the IRD itself did not follow up on repayment plans not being honoured. It was also found that there are no automated systems to flag taxpayers who missed monthly payments or even to highlight repayment plans which had expired.
My reaction to the Auditor’s Report was “only if” …. more tax were to be collected, there would be more money for helping those 85,800 who are at risk of poverty and social exclusion; more money to save the environment from constant erosion; more money to plant trees and care for them; more ….. I leave it to you to add to the list.
Dying for a chat
The last few weeks have been full of talk about solitude, depression, and mental health in general. After the perfect summer storm made up of frequent electricity cuts, traffic snarl-ups, inflation worries, and other assorted aggravating circumstances, autumn brought with it a period of introspection probably without precedent. The result was a barrage of articles, TV and radio programmes, and Facebook posts about how people were living in one of the world’s most-densely populated countries, yet in solitude.
One single man ̶ the ubiquitous Dr Andrew Azzopardi ̶ took up the subject and turned it into a media frenzy. On the positive side, it put the issue into the limelight. On the negative side, I bet that people who didn’t feel lonely, started worrying whether there might be something wrong with them seeing that they didn’t feel solitary.
One particular story which struck me on newsbook.com and Tik-Tok was about a man who lives on his own and who told his interviewer that he doesn’t switch on the TV to avoid watching any programmes where he might see happy people or families talking about the kind of life he doesn’t have. The interview showed the predicament of lonely people, who are lonely precisely because they do not have close family relations or friends and make their situation worse by isolating themselves from society.
George Micallef was one of the persons who shared their experience on the documentary ‘Il-Ġerħa tas-Solitudni’ ̶ an initiative by the Faculty for the Well-Being of Society at the University of Malta. Micallef tells how he often closes the windows in his home not to hear the happy chatter of children on the street, culminating in his rant when a choir made of youngsters started chanting Christmas carols outside his residence. “It’s hard to bear somebody else’s happiness if you yourself are not in such a state,” he exclaimed.
According to Micallef, his feeling of solitude is so strong that, finding it difficult to sleep without being overcome by worries and unhappiness, he often goes to work four hours before time to have a few words with the security guy on watch. I wonder whether the security guy himself might welcome Micallef because he too is lonely on the watch.
Newbook.com reported that Caritas Malta had received requests from 500 people to attend its annual Christmas meal, not just from people who said they weren’t able to afford one but also from others who did not have anyone with whom to share the meal or celebrate the festive season.
Andrew Azzopardi is trying to raise awareness among policy-makers and civil society about the problem. One cannot say that nothing is being done. People who feel lonely and need support can contact the on-line platform kellimni.com. Yet another tool is Supportline 1579, which can provide immediate information or refer the persons concerned to one of the social service agencies that cater for such people. There is also the chat service OLLI.chat, run by the Richmond Foundation for those who are suffering from mental problems.
Having said that, loneliness is a problem that is besetting populations all over the world in varying degrees and there is no doubt that it merits greater attention.
Main illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios