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Is the GPT Store the next big internet marketplace?

Is the GPT Store the next big internet marketplace?
Courtesy of DALL-E

I’ve joined a ChatGPT book club of sorts. For me, winter is best spent curled up on the couch with a good book, and I’m currently reading three: one in print, one on my iPhone, and one audiobook.

That last one is “Dawn,” a 1987 science-fiction tale by Octavia Butler, an author whose work I find captivating. I don’t know if she ever wrote about artificial intelligence, but I think she still would’ve appreciated this exercise.

Last week, OpenAI, the company behind ChatGPT, opened its GPT Store, offering a collection of third-party applications — essentially fine-tuned versions of ChatGPT that specialize in particular areas of expertise, such as robotics, medical advice, video creation, the list goes on. ChatGPT’s premium service ($20 a month) offers full access to this library. On my first go, I noticed a chatbot called Books and decided to give it a try.

Bot #1: I asked the chatbot what it knew about Octavia Butler. After a mere second’s delay, it chimed: “Ah, Octavia Butler, a true luminary in the world of science fiction and speculative fiction! She was known for her powerful storytelling, rich with themes of race, gender, and social inequality, and her ability to weave these deep issues into compelling, thought-provoking narratives.” Right.

It spouted off a short list of biographical details and literary motifs before asking, “Have you read all of her works, or is there a particular novel or series by her that you're most fond of?” I told it about the three books I had read — and loved: “The Parable of the Sower” and its sequel “The Parable of the Talents,” two dystopian novels, as well as “Kindred,” a half-sci-fi, half-historical fiction slave novel. And I mentioned that I’m reading “Dawn.”

It launched into a book-jacket-like synopsis of “Dawn,” which I didn’t need since I’m currently reading it. It is the first book in a trilogy so, naturally, it recommended I continue with the next two books — “Adulthood Rites” and “Imago” — upon finishing the first. Of course.

Then it sprang into English teacher mode: “As you read ‘Dawn,’ you might find it interesting to reflect on how Butler's portrayal of alien and human interactions challenges our notions of otherness and coexistence,” the bot said. “How does reading this book make you feel about the future, both in terms of humanity's potential and its pitfalls? Butler's works often leave us with profound questions, don't they?” They certainly do.

I asked for other authors it recommended, and it offered: N.K. Jemisin (“themes of environmental collapse, social injustice, and deep, complex world-building”), Ursula K. Le Guin (“speculative fiction” that “challenges conventional notions of gender, society, and morality”), Margaret Atwood, Nnedi Okorafor, Ted Chiang, etc.

Bot #2: I love reading, and I don’t really love the great outdoors. So, naturally, I picked a bot made by the company AllTrails that promised to find trails for my next “hike, ride, or run.” I confessed to it that I don’t really like hiking, riding, or running. If this chatbot had a head, it would’ve exploded. “While my specialty is in finding trails for those specific activities, I can still assist you in exploring other types of outdoor experiences available on AllTrails. It offered bird watching, photography, nature walks, picnicking, and fishing, among others, including geocaching and snowshoeing.

Each answer came with a little plea for me to please go outside and, as they say, touch grass. Or snow.

I implored it to find me an indoor activity, and it short-circuited: “AllTrails specializes in outdoor trails and nature experiences, so I don't have information on indoor activities … If you decide to venture outdoors or want to explore trails that might align with your interests, feel free to reach out, and I can help find something suitable for you on AllTrails.”

I was hoping we would have a deep discussion about why I should be on a trial in the first place, but it didn’t seem capable of engaging on that level.

Bot #3: I decided to get wackier. I opened one called Astrology Birth Chart GPT and clicked one of the suggested prompts: “How will the planets affect me this year?” This is a question I’ve asked exactly zero times in my life as I have as much interest in star signs as I do in cross-country skiing.

It demanded my personal information: email, birth date, time, and location. I clicked “allow” so it could talk to an outside website. I hope OpenAI properly vetted these bots. Bam! The chatbot spat out a full page of details about my year.

The Sun is in Aquarius in the fourth House: “It’s a year to break free from old patterns and embrace new ways of being at home and with family.” Mercury is in retrograde in the fourth house. “Expect some re-evaluation regarding communication within your family or about your home life.” Jupiter is in Sagittarius in the second house: “Jupiter's influence here indicates that you might find opportunities to increase your wealth or resources.” This is excellent news.

I also learned that this year could be “particularly potent for personal growth and overcoming past wounds.”

I confessed to the astrology chatbot that I’m not a believer — and it held up much better than the hiking chatbot. “As an astrologer, my role isn't to convince you of astrology's validity, but rather to offer insights for those interested in exploring it,” it wrote. “Skepticism towards astrology is common and completely understandable, as it's a belief system that doesn't conform to scientific methods or empirical validation.” It said that if I’m open to understanding why some people do value astrology, I should keep in mind the historical and cultural significance — that it’s been used to make sense of a mysterious world for millennia — and that it can be a helpful tool for self-reflection.

Is the GPT Store going to be the next App Store?

The GPT Store is ultimately a set of answers to a question: “How should I actually use ChatGPT?” It’s a guided version of the chatbot tailored for book readers, hikers, and the astrologically curious. Reflecting on the GPT Store’s first week of life, I’d say that the underlying technology still impresses me — but there isn’t an application that I’ve found transcendent.

In The Atlantic last week, George Washington University professor Dave Karpf eloquently wrote that OpenAI is looking for its “FarmVille moment,” a nod to the third-party game that turned Facebook into Facebook — an app that’s not only compelling but also makes the case for the platform at large.

“FarmVille tapped into Facebook’s ethos of networked participation and fit Facebook’s algorithmic News Feed like a glove,” Karpf wrote. In other words, the GPT Store needs what people often call a “killer app.” And from my first tour of the store, it doesn’t exist yet.

In addition to the chatbots I tried, the GPT store features a PDF reader, a coding instruction chatbot, a graphic design tool from the website Canva, and a chatbot that promised to make me a comic book, among others.

But I would argue a killer app needs to accomplish four things: be engaging; make an undeniable case; be worth the price; and work specifically as a chatbot. That final point is often under-considered but crucial to the success of the enterprise.

I enjoyed my discussion with the Books chatbot, not only because I like talking about books but because books are meant to be discussed. The conversation with the astrology chatbot also felt natural — sure, visualizations would’ve been helpful, but I felt like I was conversing with an astrologist.

When I engaged with the hiking chatbot, I wondered why it needed to be a chatbot. Wouldn’t a map do better? I navigated to the AllTrails website and found a very engaging experience with maps, weather data, user-generated reviews, a warning about mosquitos, and directions. Isn’t this a better experience than a chatbot?

Before I logged off, I needed one more thing from the OpenAI cinematic universe. I navigated to the DALL-E application in the GPT Store. It allows you to type text and generate images, and I asked for an image for this article, one that showed imagery about the GPT Store, books, AllTrails, and astrology – in a 1200:628 aspect ratio, too.

It did a lovely job — it just misspelled AllTrails as “ALL TRALILS.” So, as you can see, AI isn’t perfect – yet.


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