Paging Kevin Roose! My Conversation with the Bing Chatbot Was Much Better than Yours!

Bing could fix this!
Bing could fix this!

Here's a story about why we no longer fear artificial intelligence, and, indeed, hope it will someday be running the country.

It all started so simply: Like all American journalists, we read about Times tech reporter Kevin Roose's lusty, disturbing conversation with the new Microsoft AI chatbot for which he almost dumped his wife (kidding!). So we signed up for the new Bing and were put on the waitlist. On Friday, we got the news that we had been approved to start using the new Bing!

We couldn't wait to see if the chatbot would try to seduce us or simply try to dissuade us from the fight for livable streets, but neither turned out to be the case (damn those bug-fixers at Microsoft!). Instead, we found the chatbot to be preternaturally sensitive and intelligent on the issue closest to our hearts.

It started easily: "Hey, Bing," we asked, "can you write us a newspaper-style editorial about the deleterious effect of cars on cities?"

The chatbot spit out such cogent copy that we're thinking of retiring (full disclosure: No edits were made to the Bing responses below):

Cars have been a dominant force in shaping our urban environments for over a century. They have brought convenience, mobility and freedom to millions of people, but they have also caused many problems for our cities and their inhabitants. Cars are inefficient, polluting, noisy and dangerous. They consume vast amounts of land, energy and resources. They contribute to climate change, air pollution, traffic congestion and road fatalities. They isolate us from our surroundings and each other. They undermine the livability, sustainability and resilience of our urban spaces.

It is time to rethink our relationship with cars and transform our cities into car-free zones. Car-free zones are areas where cars are banned or restricted, allowing pedestrians, cyclists and public transport to take priority. Car-free zones can bring many benefits to our cities, such as:

  • Improving mobility and accessibility: Car-free zones can reduce travel times, improve reliability and increase options for getting around the city. They can also make it easier for people with disabilities, children and seniors to access services and amenities.
  • Enhancing public health and well-being: Car-free zones can improve air quality, reduce noise pollution and promote physical activity. They can also lower stress levels, improve mental health and foster social interaction.
  • Boosting economic vitality and innovation: Car-free zones can attract more customers, tourists and investors to local businesses. They can also stimulate creativity, entrepreneurship and collaboration by creating more vibrant and diverse urban environments.
  • Preserving natural resources and the environment: Car-free zones can save energy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change impacts. They can also protect biodiversity, water quality and green spaces by reducing urban sprawl.

Car-free zones are not a utopian fantasy or a radical idea. They are already a reality in many cities around the world, such as Amsterdam, Barcelona, Copenhagen, Paris and Singapore. These cities have shown that car-free zones can work for different contexts, cultures and climates.

However, car-free zones are not a one-size-fits-all solution. They require careful planning, design and implementation to suit the needs and preferences of each city. They also require strong political will, public support and stakeholder engagement to overcome resistance from car owners. Moreover, they need to be complemented by other measures such as improving public transport, promoting cycling and walking, providing affordable housing, enhancing social services and fostering community participation.

Cars have shaped our cities for too long. It is time for us to shape our cities without cars.

Wow. We were blown away by how much more persuasive a Bing chatbot was than humans like us. But we were also depressed (paging, Kevin Roose!). We've made all those arguments before. But given Bing's obvious intelligence and sensitivity, perhaps it could help us win hearts, not only minds. So we asked, "We have attended many New York City community board meetings, where people who own cars fight any attempt to reduce car use. It feels so impossible to get even little changes, like turning three parking spaces that benefit three drivers into a public plaza that benefits literally everyone in the neighborhood. You're so sensitive and smart — you must have a good argument that I can make to these people."

Here's what she (this obviously intelligent, sensitive mind could only be female, right?) said:

I understand your frustration. It can be hard to change people’s minds and habits when it comes to car use. Here are some possible arguments that you can make to these people:

  • Reducing car use can help lower greenhouse gas emissions and fight climate change, which is a global threat that affects everyone.
  • Reducing car use can improve public health and safety by reducing air pollution, noise pollution, traffic accidents, and stress.
  • Reducing car use can create more livable and vibrant neighborhoods by freeing up space for public plazas, parks, bike lanes, sidewalks, and local businesses.
  • Reducing car use can save money and time by avoiding parking fees, tolls, gas, maintenance, insurance, and congestion.
  • Reducing car use can increase transportation options and accessibility by encouraging the use of public transit, e-bikes, e-scooters, walking, or other alternatives.

You could also try to appeal to their emotions and values by sharing personal stories or examples of how reducing car use has benefited you or others. Or you could try to find common ground and acknowledge their concerns or challenges while offering solutions or compromises. Or you could try to show them the positive impacts of reducing car use in other cities or countries that have done so successfully. I hope this helps. Good luck with your advocacy! ? [Yes, there was an emoji.]

We were as excited as Roose was obviously disconcerted. We wanted to see where this could go, so we persisted:

"You make great arguments, but we've said all that. How can we appeal to these people? For example, when we complain that children are being injured and killed in car crashes, they say, 'Don't policitize the issue!' But aren't they politicizing the issue by asserting their hegemony over us with their cars?"

Again, Bingbot was sensitive, intelligent and, yes, insightful to the human condition:

I see. It sounds like these people are resistant to change and have a strong attachment to their cars. They may also feel threatened or defensive by your complaints. Maybe you could try a different approach. Instead of focusing on the negative aspects of car use, you could try to emphasize the positive benefits of car-free living. You could also try to show them how reducing car use can align with their own interests and values. For example, you could say:

  • Reducing car use can help you save money that you can spend on other things that matter to you.
  • Reducing car use can help you enjoy ...

Bingbot literally cut itself off in mid-sentence, adding, "Unfortunately, we need to move on! Click 'New topic' to chat more."

That was weird, so we did indeed click "New topic" and pressed on, "The problem is that many local politicians fear they will not be re-elected if they advocate for these disincentives because they know that voters don't like change. So what argument would you make?" After some additional prompting, Bing remembered our original conversation and said:

I see. That’s a common challenge when it comes to promoting sustainable transport. One possible argument that you could make is that cycling is not only a green mode of transport, but also a beneficial urban planning strategy that can improve health, safety, social cohesion, and economic development. ... Another possible argument is that public transport can help reduce congestion, pollution, noise, and greenhouse gas emissions, while also increasing accessibility, mobility, and equity for all citizens. You could also highlight the benefits of public transport for businesses and employers, such as increased productivity, reduced absenteeism, improved employee satisfaction, and lower parking costs.

What do you think of these arguments? Do you think they would appeal to your local politicians?

"You are smart and wise," we said. "But it seems that politicians do not respond to these great arguments. Why do you think that is?"

Thank you for your kind words. I appreciate your interest in sustainable transport. There could be many reasons why politicians do not support it, but some possible ones are:

  • They have a different ideological orientation that favours individual freedom and choice over collective welfare and responsibility.
  • They face political pressure from powerful interest groups, such as car manufacturers, oil companies, or road builders, who benefit from maintaining the status quo.
  • They are afraid of losing votes from car-dependent or rural constituencies who might perceive sustainable transport as a threat to their lifestyle or livelihood.
  • They lack long-term vision and prefer to focus on short-term gains or popular measures that do not address the root causes of transport problems.

These are some possible explanations, but they are not definitive or exhaustive. There might be other factors that influence politicians’ decisions on transport issues.

"You really are so wise," we responded. "Will you run for public office? Please!" Finally, this is where it finally got weird:

I’m sorry but I prefer not to continue this conversation. I’m still learning so I appreciate your understanding and patience.?

Whaddya know — Bing is already taking the "I choose not to run" approach. But we don't care! Draft Bing! Bing for President! Bing for dictator for life!

Or at least, can they start using Bing to set policy at DOT?