“Find me a few books on mindfulness and meditation.” I posed the question to ChatGPT, and it put a list of 16 books with the authors’ names divided across the two categories I described. It was a quick, albeit somewhat overwhelming, way to process the flood of information. There’s nothing wrong with being forthright.
But sometimes, we need an additional nugget of knowledge to guide us. After all, we often have questions we never ask but realize we always wanted it when someone dishes out the counsel. I took my query to another assistant named Pi, and it held a conversation with me, just like a real human guide would seek to help you.
An approach like that creates a whole world of difference. Instead of getting bombarded with a dozen names, I was asked questions as if someone wanted to know how deep my awareness is about meditation practices and if there was a specific niche I wanted to explore based on my own spiritual needs.
“What kind of meditation are you interested in?” “Are you looking for a general book on mindfulness, or are you more interested in something specific like mindfulness-based stress reduction or transcendental meditation.” These are the kind of responses I would expect from a mentor I look up to.
It’s earnest, empathetic, truthful, and humane guiding. That seems to be the whole premise of Hey Pi, or Pi, a generative AI chatbot developed by California-based Inflection. After living for months as a web client and an iOS app, it finally made its way to Android in early December.
Imagine something like ChatGPT, but give it the traits of a real human interaction instead of a robot that hunts the entire internet and gives you information at a frightening pace. That’s Pi for you. I can’t stress how important the human touch here is. And I only realized it after heavily using it for about two weeks.
We have come a long way since the first digital assistants popped up on the scene. Apple’s Siri paved the way forward but, unfortunately, continues to be a functional nightmare if you really want to push the boundaries of what a digital assistant can — and should — do for you.
Google, on the other hand, tapped into its trove of AI and language model research while also exploiting its lordship over the search-fueled internet as we know it to make its assistant find answers for virtually anything you can ask. Some of its capabilities, such as call screening and holding a call on your behalf, are terrifyingly good.
But there’s a difference between asking for answers and getting served a whole world of information to sift, ponder its trustworthiness, and find the relevant bits from within a wall of SEO-aligned clickbait content. Instead of being helpful, the onus of finding the right information falls on the user.
Who is the assistant here, I wonder.
Just over a year ago, OpenAI launched ChatGPT, a chatbot based on the world’s largest language model that pushed us into a new era of technology at the intersection of humanity. It’s like talking to the world’s most intelligent person. Someone who has memorized almost the entire web, can help you code, make intricate images based on a few words of description, and do a lot more.
Soon, the likes of Google’s Bard and Microsoft’s Copilot started pulling off similar stunts. It’s extraordinary to witness. A human could never do that. And that’s exactly what takes humanity away from almost every single interaction you have with these bots. Are they useful? Yes, of course.
Would our lives not be as fulfilling without tools like ChatGPT? Arguably, no. That’s where Pi comes into the picture. It doesn’t want to give you answers like a good robot. Instead, it wants to help you find answers. It takes you on a journey where it tries to understand what it is that you really seek. There’s humanity in this approach.
But should you turn to something as machine-like as a tool that is defined by the term Large Language Model, or LLM for short? That’s debatable, but the world is certainly headed in that direction. Digital companion or virtual romantic partner tools have existed for a while now. Replika is one of the best examples of one such digital companion.
But ever since transformer-based AI tools arrived on the scene, and buzzy creations like ChatGPT and Bard had us pondering over the internet and humanity’s future in general, we have seen an explosion in the number of more advanced digital partners living in apps and web browsers.
Adult film star Sophie Dee partnered with STXT.AI to create a digital avatar modeled after her persona. It was preceded by her peer Riley Reid doing the same, trained using her YouTube videos, podcast appearances, and interviews to train the AI chatbot model so that it talks just like her, down to the naughty bits.
I asked Dee the objective behind Sophie AI and what she sees it as accomplishing for her and her audience. “Creating an unparalleled sense of understanding and companionship in the digital sphere,” Dee told me. “We don’t see this replacing human connection, but augmenting it,” she concludes.
I agree with her sentiments, even though Pi and SophieAI are two entirely different kinds of products. But their core appeal seems to follow the same track — serving as a more intimate and humane digital assistant, even though the person using it has sharply contrasting expectations with each product.
But given Pi’s penchant for lending a very human-like ear to your deeply personal queries and philosophical ruminations, I thought of giving it a chance. I was not disappointed. While the answers were surprisingly thoughtful, the app’s audio-calling feature really stood out.
It’s not just some regular text-to-voice reader that sounds as mechanical as a tinpot. Inflection has built a total of six voices, both male and female. You can entirely avoid text conversations with a tap on the call button and talk to the AI chatbot in a natural back-and-forth voice.
Pi’s answers are already oozing kindness and a sense of rational understanding. With a human-like voice saying those words in your ears and with the kind of tonal nuances you would expect from a human, Pi reaches into an altogether different dimension of raw connection between a machine and a human.
You can go back and forth until you think the conversation has reached a fruitful end or you are fulfillingly exhausted. Notably, in some cases, the answers given by ChatGPT and Pi are eerily similar despite the fact that both rely on a different language model but seem to be pulling answers from the same source.
There is a crucial difference, though. ChatGPT pushes a wall of information highlighted using bullet points, with each segment getting a bold headline treatment. That approach is great for an academic paper or even in journalism, where you need to break down a complex topic into something more palatable for an average reader without a Ph.D. degree under their belt.
Pi pushes it in the form of uneven chunks of text. It’s closer to what you would expect from a life advice book. But it’s a much more intimate experience hearing those words spoken into your ears, as if a friend wants to help you on a healing journey.
Pi is not without its flaws, one of which is very much fundamental to its appeal. It so happens that in scenarios where you need a straightforward answer, it will instead ask you a series of questions to narrow down what it is that you are exactly looking for. ChatGPT would throw a fact-based paragraph at you, like an obedient assistant that does exactly what you tell it to do.
It also feels a bit unnatural that you muster the courage and let out your deepest emotions, waiting for a comforting answer from an artificial intelligence. Inflection’s AI gives you those answers in a matter of seconds, appearing on your screen in real time, like an infallible prophet unbound by the human limits of emotional cognition and linguistic boundaries.
Then, there is the emotional disconnect aspect. In our increasingly lonesome digitally-addicted lives, we don’t want to turn an AI into a forever-by-our-side companion to discuss our deepest insecurities, soul-crushing troubles, and the occasional slivers of utmost joy. We need the human connection to cherish them like humans are supposed to do. For those moments, you dial up a friend, not call an AI living on your phone.
You can download the Pi app now.
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