If you remember chatting with SmarterChild back on AOL Instant Messenger back in the day, you know how far ChatGPT and Google Bard have come. But how do these so-called chatbots work—and what’s the best way to use them to our advantage?

Chatbots are AI programs that respond to questions in a way that makes them seem like real people. That sounds pretty sophisticated, right? And these bots are. But when it comes down to it, they’re doing one thing really well: predicting one word after another.

So for ChatGPT or Google Bard, these chatbots are based on what are called large language models. That’s a kind of algorithm, and it gets trained on what are basically fill-in-the-blank, Mad-Libs style questions. The result is a program that can take your prompt and spit out an answer in phrases or sentences.

But it’s important to remember that while they might appear pretty human-like, they are most definitely not—they’re only imitating us. They don’t have common sense, and they aren’t taught the rules of grammar like you or I were in school. They are also only as good as what they were schooled on—and they can also produce a lot of nonsense.

To hear all about the nuts and bolts of how chatbots work, and the potential danger (legal or otherwise) in using them, you can subscribe to PopSci+ and read the full story by Charlotte Hu, in addition to listening to our new episode of Ask Us Anything