Student Team: Reflections on critical analysis and chatbot topics
This podcast is part of the UCIL Digital Society course from the University of Manchester running in 2021/22 semester 2. The story it relates to is hosted on Medium and concerns the Critical Analysis and the Interacting with chatbots topics.
In this podcast the Library Student Team reflect on your comments so far.
ST1: Hello everyone, my name is Sara from the Library Student Team.
ST2: And I am Salma a member of the Library Student Team as well.
These weeks’ topics were “Critical Analysis” and “Interacting with Chatbots” which is very important in our current digital society. It is ever so crucial to realize that information can be altered, targeted and changed for different purposes. Novel technologies such as chatbots are being programmed and developed. These are computer programmes that simulate human-computer conversations and it is particularly important to think critically about their function and application. In the past weeks, we’ve covered the tools of critical analysis, and developing your own critical voice. We also covered interacting with chatbots, their current uses and their related challenges and problems.
We first prompted you to think about a time when you’ve had to think critically about the information you’ve encountered digitally. Your insights on this topic were enjoyable to read! One of you gave the example of encountering misinformation related to “the Covid-19 pandemic and the emerging vaccinations that circulated the internet”. Many of you agreed that it is done, “with almost every piece of information” and that it is important to “Trust but Verify” every source you come across. The Student Team at the Library also agree that misinformation is frighteningly easy to believe, and humorously reminisce about the times they’ve had to debunk information shared through social media such as Whatsapp or Facebook groups. There are a lot of myths and conspiracy theories to be wary of.
Developing a critical voice is essential to being confident citizens of a digital society. However the term ‘critical’ can mean different things in different contexts. We asked you: what does it mean to be critical? Many of you reiterated that it really is important to consider “multiple perspectives both for or against” an argument, before coming to your own conclusions. Looking at the “evidence used” and your “ability to question the accuracy and credibility of information” is all part of being analytically critical! One of you mentioned that being critical means “to not be afraid of rethinking your attitude toward your previous experience and knowledge” which is an excellent point. It is often fear of the unknown or the unfamiliar that acts as a barrier to developing an informed opinion, and a trusted perspective. Therefore, “Source checking is a very valuable skill” to help you decide whether what you believe is more reliable, and to your knowledge, the most credible information.
Next, we asked you to share your top tips for reading critically. One of you responded with the advice that “If something sounds sketchy, it probably is” which illustrates a good point and that is to trust your gut, but to then utilize the necessary strategies for reading critically. In the words of one of the students, “Keep thinking, be open-minded, stay concentrated”. Critical reading is a skill like any other, practice makes it almost perfect.
This skill is especially important in our technocratic society. Chatbots are being developed for multiple purposes. We explored two main types of chatbots that have become an integral part of the internet: keyword recognition chatbots and contextual chatbots. We discussed the key difference between them is that contextual chatbots learn about you as a user. We then explored the darker sides of interacting with chatbot technology. It is important to consider that chatbots are a reflection of their programming. For example, Microsoft’s Tay was a bot trained using tweets from Twitter. Within less than 24 hours, this bot was trained to be racist. We asked you about your concerns regarding the use of chatbots in customer service situations. You pointed out this technology can be ‘difficult to navigate’ and ‘frustrating because they can misunderstand what you want’. You gave the example of phone call menus leading to lost time and potentially the wrong action due to a bot. Additionally, some of you had privacy concerns.
We asked you to critically analyze a source and form your own critical opinion, then to share this with us anonymously. One of you contributed to this activity and linked an article titled “New study finds AI-enabled anti-Black bias in recruiting”, and summarized that the article’s main argument is that racial bias and inequality remain present within the workplaces that hire through AI regulated formats. The student reflected that the article is very persuasive through its use of compelling statistics and facts, but it may appear misleading because it lacks specificity in categorizing biases and supporting a critical argument. It is important to examine the information you receive and to pose new questions and generate a critical analysis.
We asked you to apply your knowledge of critical analysis to form new hypotheses. Many of you read articles about “Covid Vaccine Scammers” and “The Darknet for Coronavirus cures”. These articles are amongst countless more available on the internet. This led some of you to reflect on the advantage of news being accessible on one hand, while having the disadvantage of spreading possible scamming schemes and fake news on the other. This may lead to conspiracies and fear-mongering being widespread within a digital society.
We discussed how chatbots can be used as ‘virtual friends’. With these bots, you can ‘decide on his/her personality, profile images, and age’ and some of you have interacted with these ‘when you were bored.’ However, you point out that ‘so far most chatbots can simply mimic human interaction or use Natural Language Generation in order to provide a response’. They do ‘give repeated answers to similar questions.’ From our own experiences using the AI bots Kuki and Evie, we feel that human ingenuity is definitely lacking. Evie and Kuki are examples of chatbots that have a virtual human face that changes expression when you interact with it. We found it particularly unnerving to communicate with Evie as, when her facial expression changed, it almost felt like she could empathise with you. However, some of you did not share this experience and found that it is easy to tell that ‘Evie is obviously a bot’.
You also used critical thinking when responding to questions about interacting with bots. When discussing the use of chatbots as virtual friends, you mentioned that you have ‘fond memories of chatting with Cleverbot’ in your early teens and that they could be used as ‘fun boredom breakers’. However, they could also be used for accessibility if someone struggles with navigating a webpage. We all reached a consensus that ‘chatbots for commercial use and customer support are rather slow and they can be frustrating to use.’ Despite discussing their uses in service settings, some of you thought that ‘the best way for chatbots to be utilised is as a companion or for a bit of fun.’ We discussed how important it is to think critically about what problems new technologies are solving. That is not to say that everything must be built with a purpose, but it is interesting to learn about why a technology was built. In the case of chatbots as virtual friends, we think this has a lot to say about the rise of loneliness in the modern world.
Thinking critically is important when interacting with digital media and novel technologies. It is vital to contextualize information to paint a more accurate picture. However, it is equally important to think critically when you develop something yourself — whether that be a novel technology, information you share on the internet or even how you choose to interact with bots. Your data plays an integral part in the fabric of what bots can work with. Create wisely.
This brings us to the end of the topics of “critical analysis” and “Interacting with Chatbots” . To recap, we’ve looked at what it means to be critical and how to read sources critically, and we considered a strategy to build on your critical thinking processes. Thank you so much for your contributions and active engagement!