Friday, May 17, 2024

Does this 'Her' moment mark the rise of AI coaching?

I now have ChatGPT4o on both my phone and desktop. It’s not until you start using it that you understand how good this is.

We started, my son, wife and I just chatting generally and it was immediately mind blowing, natural, friendly, inquisitive. We kept looking at each other as if to say ‘Holy shit!’. We even asked to translate this Scottish dialect sentence “We’re goin doon the street for the messages.” She translated it accurately as going shopping!

I then started to speak to it in French abut our impending holiday and it did a great job, even telling me the distance in Kilometres on the route. That gave us an idea – using it to teach a foreign language. It asked her to play the role of a friendly language tutor and she did, with gradually more complex phrases and questions, recognising when I got it right asking again if I got it wrong. This is real dialogue as if she were a real language teacher.

A friend, on social media, then asked me if it could teach Sorani or Tingriyan. I thought the latter may be something from Game of Thrones, that’s how little I know about these languages but… she started to teach me both when I asked. This is sort of mind blowing as the teaching of languages is an area of catastrophic failure in schools. This may well be the answer, as it is endlessly patient, personalised and available 24/7 on any phone.

Moving on I got her to play coach, a life coach, then leadership coach, then leadership coach based on Blanchard’s Situational leadership. All worked. This is interesting, as you can get it to coach from one theoretical basis. One wonders whether the whole coach, mentor, councillor, therapist industry will be decimated by this?

‘Her’ moment

To be totally honest, I’m not a great fan of the coaching, mentoring and counselling industry. That’s not to say it is of no use, only that I feel it is bloated and, as people love talking about themselves, is often built upon this and this alone. There are several ways this could shake out, as dialogue-based technology has suddenly got super-good:

1. It expands the human-to-human coaching industry (zero probability)

2. It eats into this market replacing much human coaching (high probability in short term)

3. It decimates this market (high probability in long term)

Note that I have no idea what the gap between short and long-term will be. But if we look at what has panned between ChatGPT3.5 and ChatGPT4o – things are moving faster than expected.

The launch of ChatGPT4o, the ‘Her’ moment in the industry has changed this game and made progress on this front, with very smart ‘dialogue’ turn-based, emotionally intelligent, multimodal chatbots. OpenAI were smart in using this meme to launch 4o, as it is spot on. With advances in realtime avatars, which are coming soon, we can expect 2. to move to 3.

Advantages of AI coaches

This may sound odd but there are several affordances around chatbots that may make them preferable for some:

1. Multimodal dialogue

2. Emotional recognition

3. Dialogue

4. Patience

5. Anonymity

Multimodal. Young people text ALL THE TIME. It’s easy and normal. They don’t necessarily want full blown speech dialogue (although of you want it you can have it). It is the quiet, low key nature of text that is calming and can be read at your own pace. Then again, this misses the social, body language and other cues in dialogue that may also help. The good news, as we saw above, is that it will all be possible. You will be able to choose your mode of dialogue, from text to full blown avatar.

Emotional recognition. This will be a feature in ChatGPT40, the recognition of emotion in your voice, opening up the possibility of more nuanced conversations.

Dialogue. This is the key to therapy. You want to be heard and listened to with calm, useful feedback. Dialogue is what our brains have evolved to do and these bots are good at it. With current chatbots you can also have an immediate transcripts of the conversation. This can be used by AI to recommend real things you can do after the session, even critique how it went.

Patience. This, they say, is a virtue and in this context a necessity. You want the quiet confidence of an endlessly patient and empathetic character, who is never impatient or snarky.

Anonymity. This is, I suspect, the secret sauce. Young people are unlikely to go to their parents, teachers, even friends through embarrassment, so they suffer in silence. The anonymity of a bot allows one to express feelings you would not to people you know.

I’m sure people will say that it needs a human to give counselling. I’m not so sure. For many this light touch may be enough. If not, you can move on to find a sympathetic soul. As a first door, it serves a purpose, of maybe even soothing those who are temporarily troubled. Sad rather than any real mental illness. We can rush to label negative emotions as deficits, even pathological, but sometimes making people realise they are not alone in having such thought is enough.

Realtime avatars

Realistic Avatars are already being used in marketing, training and other contexts. I have Synthesia and Heygen avatars. These are all pretty impressive technically and, more importantly in terms of impact. I’ve shown them to audiences around the world and they literally ‘wow’ audiences. I have used them in multiple languages from Norwegian to Zulu. 

This June I will be back in the Synthesia Studio to create a hyper-real version of myself. This is a real advance to the level of looking and sounding like me, with my strong Scottish accent.

Personal chatbots

As well as my avatars, I have a Chatbot (Digital-Don) that allows you to ask me questions, answering using almost everything I’ve ever written. Believe me this is impressive. It uses OpenAIs GPT service (RAG) and does a brilliant job. I find myself asking myself things about things my resent self has forgotten. It is like speaking to a better version of yourself, with a great memory! The opportunities for everyone to have such a chatbot is already here. Any expert, academic, writer can have one. Moderna has rolled out 400 expert chatbots to perform most of its corporate functions. We will see a lot, lot more of this.

Games and NPCs

We also have services producing realtime avatars that you can chat to in real time. They are already available in games. Nvidia’s ACE (Avatar Cloud Engine) for Games brings real-time conversational AI to in-game NPCs (Non Player Characters). This technology integrates text-to-speech, natural language understanding, and facial animation to create responsive and lifelike NPCs. They have produced a player that can interact with a shopkeeper NPC in real-time within a cyberpunk setting, showcases the potential for future game integrations. ZREALITY has developed spatially aware virtual assistants using ChatGPT and Ready Player Me avatars. These assistants can navigate 3D environments and interact with users in a natural and intuitive way, providing real-time support and enhancing the user experience in various applications. Roblox has announced a new generative AI-based character creator. Ubisoft has also demonstrated its NPCs or NEO NPCS, in partnership with Inworld AI. They use LLMs and are quite simple at the moment, as David Louapre says, more “roleplay than gameplay” but we will undoubtably see lots of this emerge as mods in tools such as Unity. 


Some years back I came across a small poem and candle on Beachy Head cliffs. It was placed there by the parents of a young girl who had thrown herself of the cliff due to her poor exam results. It shocked me then, it shocks me now, that someone so young could summon up the strength to do that. It hit me like a train.

Psychologist, a Chatbot on Character.AI, one among many, seems to do exceptionally well. It gets 3.5 million hits a day! The idea is simple, it delivers standard CBT therapy as dialogue, just like a real counsellor or therapist. It's chatty, helpful, endlessly patient and unlike human support is available 24/7.

Isn't it odd that something that is text only, simple dialogue is so wildly popular? It does not surprise me, as since ELIZA, developed way back between 1964 to 67, people have loved these bots. Even that version, which was quite primitive keyword reflection fooled people into thinking it was human. We know from Nass & Reeves, even the movies, how easy it is to get people to think that what they see and hear is human, especially what they see as meaningful dialogue.

Seven years ago, I tried Woebot (Woe is me… my 10 days being counselled by a chatbot (woebot)) a counselling chatbot. I rather liked it.

This was way before LLMs and ChatGPT and I wrote a ton in my book ‘AI for Learning’ about how powerful dialogue chatbots would become, including those for wellbeing. 

Then along came ChatGPT – suddenly it happened, we shifted from monologue to dialogue. It changed everything! These large language models capture vast amounts of language. When you speak to ChatGPT you are speaking to ourselves, the human hive mind. One of their great strengths is that they really do present human dialogue as the means of learning. They humanise learning but also coaching.

These wellbeing bots really have now taken off. ‘Psychologist’, probably the most popular from, is pretty good. The dialogue feels natural, like talking to a real person and the advice, largely a CBT approach is pretty sound. Fast and short chat, it gave me a pretty good summary of CBT:

“Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a type of psychological therapy which focuses on the relationship between thoughts, feelings and behaviour. The key principle of CBT is that thoughts affect feelings, and feelings affect behaviour.

The aim of CBT is to help people change their thoughts in order to improve their emotions & behaviours. It does this through identifying and targeting problematic patterns of thinking, as well as working on techniques to challenge and replace these thoughts with more rational and adaptive ones.”

It’s been around for just over a year and has clocked up some pretty impressive stats at 78 million messages, 18 million since November. You’re talking about millions of individuals talking with it every day.

Some of the people using the bot simply respond by saying they are lonely and just needed to chat to someone. Why not? I can see these being part of our counselling landscape in the future, they already are. The problem here are humans, who sometimes push people into places through pressure, even bullying. Let’s not think that being human can be Panglossian. We all live lives of quiet desperation to some degree and we all need a shoulder to lean on sometimes. Let that shoulder be a friendly chat at any time, from anyplace on anything.

In an absolutely fascinating paper by Maples, B., Cerit, M., Vishwanath, A. and Pea, R., 2023. titled Loneliness and Suicide Mitigation for Students using GPT3-Enabled Chatbots, 1006 student users turned out to be more lonely than typical students. One third of the population suffer from loneliness, 1 in 12 are so lonely it causes serious health problems and suicide is the 4th global cause of death 15–29. With the Replika bot, 3% reported it halting suicidal thoughts.

The research on therapy bots, with large audiences, is that young people especially value the anonymity of the technology - they do not go to parents, teachers of faculty - they suffer in silence.


Once realtime avatars comes in and they become hyper-real then the human dimensions of dialogue (body language and other contextual and social cues) can be achieved. Coaching, mentoring and counselling will not disappear but it would be foolish to imagine it will be untouched. It has already had huge audiences and will continue to grow, in part replacing these services. 

One of the problems coaching bots will face, will be the simple fact that they may not be adding much value. Simply asking OpenAI or another service may suffice. However, there are lots of niches where these tools still help. These vary from simulating difficult conversations through to identifying your leadership style by tracking what you do in meetings – and everything in-between.

With AI, we’d be wise to take Wayne Gretzky’s advice and "skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been."

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