Chatting up chatbots/Everybody Lies

Chatting up chatbots/Everybody Lies

Synopsis: As more and more HR functions start to make use of chatbots to answer queries HR teams have to address a problem that didn’t used to exist: what happens when someone is mean to something that isn’t conscious?

Yesterday I was chatting to an HRD about a possible change in their structure and approach. It’s a bit of my job that I really enjoy. And we were talking about their adoption of chatbots for volume queries and how that was changing the shape of what people need from the function.

Then she said “And you should see the things someone is writing to it. I think they think they are dating it…”

Which got me thinking about to what extent we police/investigate/worry about actions that have no impact on the organisation (beyond the waste of time to type nonsense to a chatbot). Actions that might ‘speak to character’ but otherwise do no damage. You can’t hurt the feelings of a chatbot and you can’t harass it as it can’t feel distress. But you can be disturbingly odd.

I’m reading Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz and it is fascinating. He uses Google search terms to get a more honest picture of the world than is available through asking people in polls or surveys. He uses this to address a wide range of questions from ‘Was Freud right about us fancying our parents?’ (apparently) to ‘What percentage of the US population is likely to be gay?’ (he estimates it as twice the ‘official’ figure – which is food for thought).

People reveal more of themselves online than if asked elsewhere – if only because of ‘social desirability bias’, our desire to give answers that we feel we’d like to associate with our character or for other people to. But on Google we have an incentive to reveal more of ourselves: we get information in return. Maybe it’s the same with chatbots.

So here are some things I’ve been thinking about.

  • A common search query for Alexa is to ask what ‘she is wearing?’. If someone asked your chatbot that would you be concerned? Would you take action?
  • Should you ethically even be looking at queries that people might think are anonymous? How clearly would we need to label the nature of the interactions?
  • If someone threatened violence against a chatbot would you consider that worrying enough to intervene?
  • If someone asked for information about a human colleague through the chatbot in a sinister/odd way would that be enough to act? ‘Can you give me the home address for the Amy who is sexy and sits in procurement?’
  • Would your employment policies currently cover aggression towards anything other than a human or damage to property? Would you even know without checking? There’s a recent example of complexity in this area with a suggestion that AI should be able to own a patent. Is it misuse of IT equipment?
  • Do you not have enough stuff that real people are doing/not doing with other people to be getting on with?
  • Could chatbot enquires reveal anything about organisational culture?
  • Will people ask (more regularly) questions that they sometimes feel worried about asking HR? For instance ‘What was my notice period again?’.

Anyway, just some thoughts. I’m off to be nice to Alexa.

This isn’t what a chatbot looks like, but I had very few photos available to me in the WordPress free section… Rob McCargow will love it.



A couple of years ago I was going through a particularly unfun time and I began to struggle with noise and light in a way that was more overwhelming than before. I now regularly suffer from sensory overload. It means I struggle (in fact I find it impossible) to filter out noise and my whole environment feels overwhelming.

There’s a video here which gives a reasonable idea of what it is like when I’m having one of those days. If I’m describing what seems like an alien problem to you then have a click.

It isn’t fun. It cripples me and I’ve had long journeys where I’ve spent them in fear of the next station being announced or the next phone call someone will take. Because I know that sound will go straight through me. As will any sound. I’ve probably, on reflection, always struggled with it – it’s just been more pronounced in recent years.

I’ve had a couple of instances of it this year – and the woman putting on makeup next to me waving her arms and dropping things on the floor is currently threatening to overwhelm my morning so I’m trying to look away from her and do something constructive. So I thought I’d write this.

Part of my job involves hopping on stage and talking to/with people. I’ve had two times this year where I’ve not been able to do that at all well.

The first was at a membership conference earlier in the year. I stood up to speak and the official photographer had rigged up flash bulbs along the edge of the stage. They went off. My brain went off. I went blank. I gathered myself and tried to start speaking again. The bulbs went off again. My brain reset. I stood their blankly. I struggled through what I was going to say. It was vague and disjointed – because I was. It felt absolutely horrible. People tell me it wasn’t. But it felt horrible.

The second time was at an event called Recfest. Where every speaker was awesome except me. I’d had a bad day before and on reflection I should have called in sick or done whatever the equivalent was for speakers. But I didn’t want to let anyone down – buy then I did. I was spaced out and struggling to operate as I should. I had about an hour of material for a 20-25 minute slot (a normal thing…). After 15 minutes I was talking in circles. Words were very hard to come by. Ideas were lost. It was bad. Part of this blog is the fact I wanted to apologise to the organiser (in this case they hadn’t been anything but awesome – and certainly hadn’t blinded me. Sorry Jamie) for being bang average/poor. If you were in the audience then I’m sorry too.

Being suddenly bad at something you are good at is a strange experience. Having days, seemingly at random, where you are scared (that’s the right word) to leave home/the office as you don’t know how well you’ll cope with a normal street scene is odd.

I do the stuff you’d expect. I have noise cancelling headphones, I book onto quiet coaches, I try and avoid rush hour, I’ll take tube routes that are less bustly (I love you District Line). I’ve told some colleagues at work and they are really good at being happy to go to quieter bars when we go out – and they understand that I might leave at short/no notice if suddenly I just don’t want to be somewhere.

I’m writing this mainly as an outlet. I’m not campaigning. I’m not brave – a couple of times a year I struggle with noise and light. But I’m willing to share that sometimes my mind doesn’t do what it is supposed to and on those days I don’t know what to do with myself.

My brain is wired differently. That’s clear in a number of ways – some of which are strengths, some of which are weaknesses. Lots of people’s are and I think there is a growing understanding of that which can only be a good thing.

But for now… If you could all live a bit more quietly in case I’m in the same train carriage that would be great.