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OPINION - My boyfriend wanted to use ChatGPT to name our baby, but I won't let him

 (Matt Writtle)
(Matt Writtle)

Sam Altman isn’t ordinarily high on the list of men with the power to derail my love life (he is, after all, a man who ate so few vegetables while building his first start-up that he contracted scurvy) but recently my relationship was brought to its knees by Altman. Or rather by ChatGPT, the large language model which Altman’s company, OpenAI, has developed and which my boyfriend has (without my knowledge and against my will) been using to generate names for our child.

Unless you hail from a long line of Roman numeral types (Henry Tarquin III etc), naming your child can be a fraught business. According to a Mumsnet survey, nearly a fifth of UK parents would choose a different name for their child if they could — and it can feel like every option is blighted by some unflattering celebrity affiliation or other. But the thought of looking a future child in the eye and admitting, when they ask how we picked their name, that mummy and daddy asked ChatGPT, left me cold.

My boyfriend and I had previously talked about using a baby-naming app which, when a friend first told me about it, sounded quite ingenious. Like Tinder, both parties download an app and, after connecting their profiles, swipe on names independently of one another and are alerted when they get a match.

Initially, it seemed foolproof — though as my friend warned, unless you pay an extra fee to unlock the premium lists (where, presumably, Tom, Steve and all those other old classics are kept) the names quickly become a little “offbeat” — Gruber, Price, Wong and Folk didn’t make the cut for him. But when it came to actually putting the app to the test, I found myself filled by a creeping sense of unease. Is it okay to outsource the naming of your child to an app? Or is it further proof that we’ve fallen down some dystopian digital rabbit hole?

Initially the app seemed fooproof, but after a while I found myself filled by a creeping sense of unease

Over the years we’ve slowly become more cognisant of what we’ve exchanged for so-called convenience: our privacy, freedom, attention and even grasp on reality — poof, all gone. Think for instance, of the period after the overturning of Roe v Wade in the US when women were warned that data from their menstrual cycle trackers could be used by authorities to check whether they’d had an abortion. Did these women know, as they dutifully input their temperature each morning, that they were participating in their own surveillance?

In our love lives, dating apps have been accused of subtly manipulating our behaviours, encouraging us to approach finding a partner much in the same way we might approach buying a new pair of trainers — in the process they’ve left us more atomised and more reliant on the apps themselves. In geopolitical terms, all this mass surveillance and behavioural engineering has been deployed to grim effect: Cambridge Analytica was the canary in the coalmine of what big tech was capable of.

Obviously, I don’t really think a baby-naming app is in quite the same league as Cambridge Analytica (though, arguably, the selection of names on offer is itself a manipulation — and only those who can afford the premium package get Toms and Steves, while the rest of us are left with Grubers). But what I do know is that apps and platforms allow the market to extract profit from every corner of our lives and that for once, I’d like to protect this tiny corner — the naming of my child — as much as possible from the influence of the free market.

The boyfriend seemed broadly unmoved by my agitation — pointing out that picking from a list generated by an app wasn’t entirely different to picking names out of a “big book of baby names” but he agreed to give the app a miss.

A few days later, after we’d batted some names (inspired by books and songs and family members) back and forth, he — sitting in the other room — began to shout through suggestions that were pretty good, no Grubers or Folks, each name seemed to riff off ones we already liked but wouldn’t have come up with ourselves. What’s inspired you, I wondered as I went into the room to find him typing prompts into ChatGPT.

The argument that Silicon Valley technocrats have always offered up is that there have never been nefarious intentions, but that the capability for surveillance super-states all came about because of the frontier nature of these technologies. “But ChatGPT isn’t the app?” the boyfriend protested. No, I raged, it has the potential to be much worse. We haven’t broached the subject of names again since.

Alexandra Jones is the Evening Standard’s culture and features executive editor