Tuesday, April 23

Personalized A.I. Agents Are Here. Is the World Ready for Them?

First, they are programmed for specific tasks. (Examples that OpenAI created include “Creative Writing Coach” and “Mocktail Mixologist,” a bot that suggests nonalcoholic drink recipes.) Second, the bots can pull from private data, such as a company’s internal H.R. documents or a database of real estate listings, and incorporate that data into their responses. Third, if you let them, the bots can plug into other parts of your online life — your calendar, your to-do list, your Slack account — and take actions using your credentials.

Sound scary? It is, if you ask some A.I. safety researchers, who fear that giving bots more autonomy could lead to disaster. The Center for AI Safety, a nonprofit research organization, listed autonomous agents as one of its “catastrophic A.I. risks” this year, saying that “malicious actors could intentionally create rogue A.I.s with dangerous goals.”

But there is money to be made in A.I. assistants that can do useful tasks for people, and corporate customers have been itching to train chatbots on their own data. There is also an argument that A.I. won’t truly be useful until it really understands its users — their communication styles, their likes and dislikes, what they look at and shop for online.

So here we are, speeding into the age of the autonomous A.I. agent — doomers be damned.

To be fair, OpenAI’s bots aren’t particularly dangerous. I got a demo of several GPTs during the company’s developer conference in San Francisco on Monday, and they mostly automated harmless tasks like creating coloring pages for children, or explaining the rules of card games.

Custom GPTs also can’t really do much yet, beyond searching through documents and plugging into common apps. One demo I saw on Monday involved an OpenAI employee asking a GPT to look up conflicting meetings on her Google calendar and send a Slack message to her boss. Another happened onstage when Sam Altman, OpenAI’s chief executive, built a “start-up mentor” chatbot to give advice to aspiring founders, based on an uploaded file of a speech he had given years earlier.