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I Tried These AI-Based Productivity Tools. Here’s What Happened - Best News

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I Tried These AI-Based Productivity Tools. Here’s What Happened

I eagerly refreshed the website, awaiting my brand-new headshots. When they finally appeared, I squinted, bewildered. I laughed out loud alone in my office, then sent a very confused email to customer support.

Every writer I know is talking about AI tools and whether they’re ethical to use. But what’s just as interesting to me is why we’re so enamored with them even if they produce outrageous or below-average results. Why do we chase the shiny new thing even if it’s not better, faster, or cheaper?

This year my LinkedIn feed has been full of posts touting the best new AI tools for doing absolutely everything, and I’ve already fallen for too many of them. I didn’t really ask myself until months later why, all of a sudden, I’m trying so hard to be one of the cool kids. Major FOMO led to me conveniently ignoring whether these tools were actually helpful.

One of the first ones that caught my eye was Aragon, a service that promises to generate professional, AI-generated headshots after uploading a few selfies. Up until then, I'd been using a picture of me jumping on a rainbow bouncy house as the hero image on my website, and a vacation snapshot as my profile photo.

Professional photographers are expensive and photoshoots are time-consuming. Aragon promised I could skip the logistical nightmare of setting up a photoshoot, finding an outfit, getting my hair done, and spending hours at a potentially awkward photoshoot that would cost hundreds of dollars and deliver images weeks later. Why not pay $39, upload a few selfies, and get 40 “professional” headshots in less than two hours?

After paying the fee and uploading selfies from different angles, I had to describe what I was looking for. I asked for a variety of images outside and inside, casual wear, and no cleavage. Some of the results were truly disturbing. Aragon gave me Instagram face in every single shot. “No cleavage” resulted in images of me wearing a “business casual” crop top with porn boobs, plastic doll teeth, and dinosaur claws. Some were plain ridiculous, like one of “me” sitting on a purse in a driveway, my pantsless legs melting together. Not even the ones that sort of looked like me actually looked like me. Aragon pretended I looked like a model, was 15 years younger, and definitely a hat person.

If you’ve ever been on a first date with someone who looks nothing like their dating app pictures, you know why people use this tool. We all want to pretend we’re more attractive than we are. Because so many of us are buying into the same lie, we start reinforcing it with each other. Hey, I won’t point out my surprise at the fact that your skin has pores in real life, if you don’t mention my digital nose job.

I’d found Aragon on one of those “173 gazillion best new AI tools you must try out TODAY” LinkedIn lists, and even though that experiment turned out to be a disaster, I continued down the list, making other people money with their affiliate links.

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AdCreativeAI piqued my interest next because it offered beautifully designed ads and social posts in seconds. Just add your logo, text, and image, and the “#1 most used AI tool for advertising” would spit out hundreds of creative designs that promised to “outperform [my] competitors.” Tesla, Amazon, Starbucks, and Microsoft supposedly used this tool. So I signed up for a free trial, used it a few times, then got charged the hefty, regular monthly subscription fee of $200. Once I uploaded my logo, I chose brand colors and fonts, then picked a format, images, and copy (with the option to let AI generate the text). The output is ranked by predicted “engagement score,” which supposedly impacts the conversion rate. I have no clue how AdCreativeAI calculates these scores.

Up until then, I’d used Canva to design marketing collateral (and by design, I mean pick a template and plug in new text). Any user can upload designs to Canva and sometimes they’re … not great. Since I’m not a designer, I can’t always tell the good from the bad. AdCreativeAI promised to take the guesswork out of it for me.

I created several different AdCreativeAI ads for a writing guide nobody bought. Maybe the offer wasn’t that interesting, or maybe it was the design. I’ll never know, because I wasn’t posting on social media or emailing my (nonexisting) list or paying for Facebook ads. Turns out, buying an expensive ad creation tool does nothing when you don’t actually run ads. Aside from that, I noticed that while there were a lot of options, the ones consistently marked with the highest potential “engagement score” were the same 10 to 20 designs, all of which got boring quickly. Finally, there was no way to resize logos or adjust images manually.

I never used AdCreativeAI enough to justify the high monthly expense, so I kept Canva instead, which, at $12/month, is a fraction of the cost. I didn’t save time between choosing a design template and plugging in my information (Canva), or feeding my information into a tool first to spit out options for me to review and pick my favorite (AdCreativeAI). Canva now offers Magic Studio, their version of AI-powered text-to-image, text-to-video, magic animate, and magic switch (for automatically changing the size and format of designs).

The most important thing I learned, though, was that the shiny tools made me believe I needed them to create something I didn’t want to create in the first place. I don’t want to sell courses and webinars. I don’t care about creating ads or engaging on social media. I’m not a bite-size person. I’m a “meandering-conversation-while-lingering-around-the-kitchen-table-after-dinner” kind of person. Plus, I’m a slow writer, so it takes a lot of effort for me to write an article. I’m cool with it taking time and effort to read, too.

What I do need for these long-form articles are great images. I relied heavily on Pexels, Pixabay, and Unsplash before I learned about Midjourney from an AI-obsessed client who’d asked me to write a series of blog posts about the intersection of technology and art. She gave me a short tutorial on how to use this text-to-image generator by using specific prompts and sent me on my way … down a rabbit hole. Three hours later, I emerged bleary-eyed, having generated exactly zero images for her blog posts. Instead, I’d created random psychedelic fairy kingdoms, hyperrealistic characters for novels I’d never write, and album covers for nonexisting bands.

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I’ve used only one image that I created with Midjourney, for a blog post. It was a fun process, but the image itself is low quality and has random elements that make no sense. With Midjourney, you get four square images as output and can ask to regenerate different versions of each of them. I got frustrated thinking that I couldn’t make a small change to an image I otherwise liked, or that Midjourney seemed to generate only square images, which is not what I needed for blog posts.

I found out later that adding image dimensions to the prompt creates nonsquare images, and when doing research for this article I learned that Midjourney released Inpainting at the end of August 2023, allowing you to select parts of the image and edit them separately. This is what happens when non-techy people use tech; I can’t fault AI for that.

The most controversial subscription I’m happy to pay for is ChatGPT+, for $20 a month. ChatGPT recently crossed the 100 million active user mark, and has completely transformed the AI landscape. I’m surprised how many writers publicly deride ChatGPT, while almost every writer I know uses it—just not for writing.

By definition, you can’t use ChatGPT for truly creative work, because its output is “based on existing data and programmed algorithms.” It can only summarize, distill, copy, and paste. I use it to learn the basics about concepts, devices, time periods, or events that I write about, and use that basic explanation as a starting point for research. I use ChatGPT to find synonyms and alternatives to whole phrases. I can narrow down research studies and articles quickly because I can search with highly specific prompts rather than simple keywords or terms. Unfortunately, ChatGPT’s knowledge data isn’t up-to-date, so it won’t find the most recent studies. I love it for brainstorming titles, and chapter and section headings. It’s also great for checking title case and correct citation formatting. In other words, ChatGPT is my one-stop assistant instead of toggling between Google, my thesaurus, research database, and CMOS formatting tool.

As a ghostwriter, I regularly record interviews with authors to collect book content, so I started using Otter.ai to transcribe these calls. The transcripts are generally good, but the tech is glitchy, keeps signing in and out, and transcribes only up to 90 minutes at a time, even with a paid version. Worse, Otter joins your meetings even if you don’t. This is the default setting, and even when you disable it, the function still sometimes glitches and leads to the Otter assistant showing up uninvited. The default setting also allows the platform to email everyone in the meeting the transcript and invite them to start a free trial, which has weirded out some of my clients. I’m still looking for the perfect automated tool that records video and audio separately and provides a transcript without being creepy AF.

My initial FOMO ended up costing me quite a bit of time and money, but gave me some clarity, too. Turns out that while I’d like to sit at the cool table, I do care more about looking like me than looking poreless. I trust my own voice over ChatGPT’s edits, and you should too. Not everything has to be captured, as the CEO of Otter argues. In fact, it’s the ephemeral nature of undocumented moments that makes me feel most alive. But that doesn’t mean I’ll get tired of learning about the newest AI tool promising the closest thing to magic I’ve ever seen.

So, here’s my super official ranking of all the tools I’ve used so far:

Most ridiculous: Aragon.AI for headshotsMost expensive: AdCreativeAI for ads and social postsMost value: Canva for designing anythingMost work to get good outputs: MidjourneyMost glitchy and frustrating: Otter.AIMost consistent use: ChatGPT

After I put the vacation snapshot back up as my profile picture, I called the friend who always has an eye for my best angles while capturing my most recognizable facial expressions.

Turns out, yes, she’s for hire as a photographer.

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