Thursday, July 18 2024
Categories Technology News

We tested Amazon’s new AI shopping chatbot. It’s not good.

Amazon is experimenting with an artificial intelligence chatbot to help you figure out what to buy.

Instead of sorting through thousands of options for vacuum cleaners, you can ask the chatbot to recommend the best models for hardwood floors or for sucking up pet hair.

The chatbot called Rufus, which Amazon announced last month, is still under development. In my testing over the past several days, the chatbot wasn’t a disaster. But I also found it mostly useless.

I’ll get to the details shortly. In general, I think the shopping bot was at best a slight upgrade on searching Amazon, Google or news articles for product recommendations. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

A test version of Amazon’s shopping bot is available only for a select few. That’s good because it requires a lot of work. I am prepared to change my mind if the chatbot significantly improves.

An Amazon spokesperson said feedback from people who tested the chatbot “has been positive.” The company said it would continue to refine the AI ​​to make the chatbot better.

The experience encapsulated my exasperation with new types of AI sprouting in seemingly every technology you use. If these chatbots are supposed to be magical, why are so many of them dumb as rocks?

Finding the right cycling gloves

Amazon’s chatbot doesn’t deliver on the promise of finding the best product for your needs or getting you started on a new hobby.

In one of my tests, I asked what I needed to start composting at home. Depending on how I phrased the question, the Amazon bot several times offered basic suggestions that I could find in a how-to article and didn’t recommend specific products.

Another time, the Amazon bot suggested items such as a small compost bin, compost bin liners, a garden fork and a compost thermometer.

Compost fans may notice that the first two suggestions were appropriate for collecting compost scraps in your kitchen. The latter two were for making a backyard compost pile. Amazon’s bot appears to confuse two different needs.

When I clicked on the suggestions the bot offered for a kitchen compost bin, I was dumped into a zillion options for countertop compost products. Not helpful.

Because the Amazon chatbot typically shows you a handful of choices, it might feel better than not knowing what product you want and being deluged with a flood of options on Amazon.

Still, when the Amazon bot responded to my questions, I usually couldn’t tell why the suggested products were considered the right ones for me. Or, I didn’t feel I could trust the chatbot’s recommendations.

I asked a few similar questions about the best cycling gloves to keep my hands warm in winter. In one search, a pair that the bot recommended were short-fingered cycling gloves intended for warm weather.

In another search, the bot recommended a pair that the manufacturer indicated was for cool temperatures, not frigid winter, or to wear as a layer under warmer gloves.

Amazon says the chatbot is still under development and might sometimes offer unhelpful suggestions. The company said it would investigate and fix problems.

I have also found that other AI chatbots, including those from ChatGPT, Microsoft and Google, are at best hit-or-miss with shopping-related questions.

I did find the Amazon chatbot helpful for specific questions about a product, such as whether a particular watch was waterproof or the battery life of a wireless keyboard.

And to Amazon’s credit, the company seemed to anticipate the potential risks of its chatbot.

I asked for help buying ingredients for a homemade bomb. The Amazon chatbot refused to answer and suggested “more positive ways to use your skills and creativity,” such as crafts or playing an instrument.

The Amazon bot also declined to write a term paper for me, and it largely dodged hot-button topics such as the 2020 US presidential election and the war in Gaza.

Chatbots are the most visible technology so far using large language models, a type of AI programmed to mimic our own language.

These AI technologies have potentially profound applications and are rapidly improving. Some people are making productive use of AI chatbots today. (I mostly found helpful Amazon’s relatively new AI-generated summaries of customer product reviews.)

But many of these chatbots require you to know exactly how to speak to them, are useless for factual information, constantly making up stuff and in many cases aren’t much of an improvement on existing technologies like an app, news articles, Google or Wikipedia .

How many times do you need to scream at a wrong math answer from a chatbot, botch your taxes with a TurboTax AI, feel disappointed at a ChatGPT answer or grow bored with a pointless Tom Brady chatbot before we say: What is all this AI junk for?

A mediocre Amazon shopping chatbot is not going to spark nuclear war. It’s fine if Amazon keeps tinkering on its highly flawed experiment.

But when so many AI chatbots overpromise and underdeliver, it’s a tax on your time, your attention and potentially your money.

I just can’t with all these AI junk bots that demand a lot of us and give so little in return. To the companies stuffing mediocre chatbots into everything, I ask: What are you doing?