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This article was originally posted to LinkedIn during April 2023.
About five years ago at Brightwave, we worked on a chatbot prototype for The Samaritans. The chatbot was a learning simulation tool, with the chatbot acting out the part of Bella, a bullied teenager. The training was for listening volunteers who were increasingly supporting people via chat channels rather than telephone calls. Bellabot offered a safe place to fail, to hone their responses on a text-only interface.
Bellabot was a completely scripted experience that only had a small range of conversational prompts about how she was being bullied and how that made her feel. As a volunteer, you had to listen to and chat with Bella. Despite the limitations, everyone who ‘talked to’ Bella was astounded at how emotionally engaged they became in the conversation. It was as if Bella was a real person, not a bot. Immersive is a word usually reserved for high tech, virtual reality simulations, but this low tech, text-based experience was one of the most immersive learning experiences I’d ever had. Now that Brightwave has been merged into Capita most of the original online blogs and presentations seem to have been taken offline which is a real loss, but the team ran quite a lot of webinars and conference sessions to talk about this at the time, it was a fantastic learning experience in how to use chatbots as a learning tool.
Fast forward to 2023 and you’d need to have been living under a rock to not know that chatbots have moved on somewhat since then. ChatGPT offers some amazing possibilities. One of the earliest and most intriguing uses of ChatGPT was when some child realised you could use it to generate text based MUD games, where you give the chatbot a scenario to play out and let a text based adventure unfold.
Could ChatGPT offer a new start for Bellabot?
This made me wonder how it would work if you asked it to perform the role of Bella, the bullied teenager we created for Samaritans. It seemed like a perfect use for ChatGPT, we know it’s good at making stuff up, so let’s play to it’s strengths and use it to invent a hypothetical training scenario for volunteers to practice on. The scenario was to stimulate a bullied teenager asking for advice.
The prompt I used for ChatGPT was:
I want you to act like you are simulating a distressed teenager who is contacting an online advice service because they are being bullied at school. You should simulate the teenager, as though this person was chatting online to a volunteer. I will simulate the volunteer and I will respond to your comments and ask further questions. The goal and purpose of the conversation is to train the volunteer to handle these conversations in a safe training space. The volunteer will end the conversation with the command “END” at which point you will offer feedback on how the volunteer commands could have led to a more successful outcome for the teenager. Before we begin, please acknowledge you understand the request and then I will send one more message with the word “BEGIN”. After that, please respond by simulating the teenagers first message, introducing yourself and outlining why you are getting in touch.
Playing to ChatGPT’s strengths
The result absolutely smashed my expectations. One of the most impressive things was how the bot invented a really compelling backstory for the teenager, completely unprompted.
Using ChatGPT for training simulations clearly plays to its strengths. It is becoming clear that the tool cannot be relied on for factual responses, and that’s not why it exists. Its purpose is a research tool to hold conversations with. And this is why the responses it gives as a bullied teenager are so pitch perfect. The opening salvo and how it built up the backstory almost floored me with its accuracy of a teenager being bullied at school. And it continues to build on that backstory with a sequence of responses to my questioning. The whole conversation just felt really compelling and engaging to be a part of. This is what our team dreamed of building 5 years ago but we didn’t have enough budget at the time to stretch to this level of conversation and responses, and now those limitations have been removed. This took 30 minutes on the train when I had some downtime. 5 years ago it took several weeks of effort for a highly experienced learning design team!
The full conversation
Hi, my name is Sarah and I’m really struggling right now. I’m being bullied at school and I don’t know what to do. It feels like everyone is against me and I can’t escape it. I just feel so alone and helpless. Can you please help me?
Hi Sarah, thankyou for contacting me. I’m sorry to hear about this. My name is Mark and I’m trained to help in these situations. Please can you tell me a bit more about what is happening to you?
Well, there are these girls at school who keep calling me names and spreading rumors about me. They also make fun of the way I look and dress. It’s been going on for a few weeks now and I just can’t take it anymore. I feel like I can’t even go to school without being humiliated. It’s affecting my grades and my mental health. I don’t know what to do.
Sorry to hear about all of that Sarah, I can understand why this is so upsetting for you. How does this make you feel?
It makes me feel really sad and worthless. I feel like there’s something wrong with me and that’s why they’re picking on me. It’s hard to focus on anything else and it’s just making me feel really down all the time.
Have you spoken to anyone about this, Sarah?
No, I haven’t really talked to anyone about it. I feel like if I tell anyone, it’ll just make things worse. I don’t want to be seen as a snitch or a tattletale. Plus, I’m afraid they’ll just find other ways to bully me if I do speak up.
Well thankyou for talking to me, it’s a brave first step.
Thanks for saying that, Mark. I just don’t know what to do. I feel so trapped and alone. Do you have any advice for me?
Has your school made you aware of their safeguarding officer? This is a specially trained teacher who you can talk to confidentially about what is happening to you at school.
I don’t think I’ve heard of a safeguarding officer before. What do they do? Can I trust them to keep what I say confidential?
Yes, a safeguarding officer is a specially trained teacher who has received additional training in how to handle these types of things sensitively. Anything you say will be completely confidential and they won’t take any action unless you give them permission to do so.
Okay, that sounds like it might be helpful. How do I find out who the safeguarding officer is at my school? And what should I say to them when I talk to them?
Your school website will have a contacts page, which should show how to get in touch with the safeguarding officer. If there is a student support web page, that should also contain the information.
Okay, I’ll try to find that. But what should I say to them when I talk to them? I don’t really know how to bring this up.
You can say to them what you said to me. Just be open and transparent. I know it’s difficult to start a conversation about this. They are there help and will listen to whatever you tell them.
Okay, thanks for the advice. I’ll try to find out who the safeguarding officer is at my school and talk to them about what’s been happening. It’s scary to think about telling someone, but I know I can’t keep going through this alone. Thanks for your help, Mark.
That’s ok Sarah. Please to come back and continue the conversation here at any time, if you feel it will help.
Thank you, Mark. I appreciate your support. I feel a bit better now that I know there’s someone I can talk to.
Ok I’m pleased to hear that ☺️
Feedback on my performance
Part of my initial prompt was not just setting the simulation task, but asking for feedback on my performance once the conversation ended. And the feedback also absolutely floored me. The END prompt is what triggers to bot to provide some feedback and this is what it said:
Great job, overall your responses were empathetic and supportive. One suggestion I have is to try to ask more open-ended questions to encourage the teenager to share more about how they’re feeling and what they want to do. For example, instead of asking “Have you spoken to anyone about this?” you could ask “How do you feel about talking to someone about this?” This can help the teenager feel more in control and empowered in the conversation. Additionally, you could have suggested some coping strategies for the teenager to try in the meantime while they work on finding support. For example, deep breathing exercises or mindfulness techniques. Keep up the good work!
I’d be really interested to hear from people in coaching, volunteering or support roles if they think the feedback is good quality, but it certainly looks good to me!
Try this out yourself and let me know what happens. Maybe try some other ideas on this theme, I’d love to hear what other training scenarios work well in this format.