Amid the worst week for tech layoffs in memory to kick off 2023, Nasdaq’s worst year since 2008, and a prolonged “crypto winter” that is wiping out nearly every letter in the blockchain alphabet soup, it has been a bad time to be bullish about long-promised futures.
Only the slightly delusional could take comfort in the hopium being huffed at this month’s CES consumer electronics show in Las Vegas, where people were merely happy for the simple and small pleasure of being able to breathe on each other again. Companies did their usual routine of shrinking down, bulking up or doubling up the same types of machines they’ve been trying to pawn off on geek squads for the last 15 years, with the most significant development being the commencement of a new golden age of urination quantification.
The real technology story of the month and maybe the next several years has been the inescapable launch of OpenAI LLC’s ChatGPT, garnering the kind of hype that is the stuff of CES carny barker dreams. ChatGPT has demonstrated the potential integration of artificial intelligence into everyday consumer life, even over what is an albeit very limited sample size. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but this could change everything.
It has certainly changed everything for ChatGPT’s developer, OpenAI, which has seen its valuation double from $14 billion in 2021 to $29 billion as of a few days ago.
Could this be just another false start for tech users and investors, though? You can’t blame both for continuing to keep hope alive, fumbling around for the next big thing since the truly innovative (and profitable) confluence earlier this century of the social web and mobile computing. Con men and women such as Elizabeth Holmes and Sam Bankman-Fried put on their best off-the-rack Spirit Halloween Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg costumes to fool investors, the media and the general public into thinking they were rightful heirs to technology’s golden gods, at least for a little while.
The con people and the legitimate tech builders are equally adept at taking advantage of the same endearing but lamentable instinct in the average technology consumer and investor to desperately dream on and on and on the next big thing. We cannot predict the future with precise clarity, and that’s especially true of betting on the innovations that will move forward (or distract) society for the next 10 or even 50 years. Nevertheless, the hype cycle fueled by the lush and varied ecosystem of technology speculators demands that every piece of hardware or software is positioned as the next iPhone or Facebook. The future’s not ours to see, but it’s much harder to dine out on pessimism.
So, for a moment, let’s celebrate the disruptors to the throne: ChatGPT and its successive technologies have the potential to upturn several industries, and take out a big name or two along the way. One of those big names is Google LLC parent Alphabet Inc., which has taken advantage of the internet’s No. 1 golden goose over the last 20 years, targeted advertising, which the company built on the better online search it practically invented. It also accounts for something like 80% of the company’s revenue.
On a (literally) micro level, this could serve as the next front in the friendly war between Google and Microsoft Corp. Microsoft, which invested $1 billion in OpenAI four years ago, and reportedly is willing to up that investment by another 10 times, has been quick to integrate ChatGPT capabilities into both Bing and its Office suite. Burned by an early AI iteration, the failed chatbot Tay, which proved vulnerable to the specious big data of racist trolls, Microsoft could use ChatGPT and its own artificial intelligence research, such as the text-to-speech model VALL-E, to stake early real estate in the next frontier of the internet and shared online knowledge.
Beyond new leverage in the tech wars, the two months since ChatGPT’s launch have provided one of the most involved consumer-based interactions with AI we’ve seen in the online era. Businesspeople, journalists and even students are plugging prompts into the great question machine and getting answers that are, if not always correct, a stunningly close approximation of knowledge base boilerplate strained through a conversational filter that feels more human than a computer-generated answer ever has.
It is a more engaging and informational version of the repackaged online search results and Wikipedia entries that Siri and Alexa have been repeating to us for the last few years. For a tech community that has been wandering the desert these last few decades looking for the next big thing, maybe that’s enough.
After all, even the iPhone and Facebook were first perceived as incremental launches, lesser versions of the BlackBerry and MySpace. Sure, AI-based plug-ins to proofread work or suggest improved language have been around for years. But if used and developed correctly, technologies such as ChatGPT and its successors could provide an invaluable resource in generating and tweaking existing boilerplate like essays, press releases (gulp) and even computer code. It’s especially bad news for those information workers who have leaned on, well, repackaging online search results and Wikipedia entries.
Even if all that’s not as ambitious as the AI of science fiction, it should at least ease the concerns of alarmists brought up on visions of AI that killed the astronauts of the Discovery One or launched Skynet. It’s just one more tool in humanity’s long-tail toolbox no more threatening than the calculator, doing what all successful technologies have ever really done, which is move things forward in ways we hardly perceive at the time but are undeniably transformative in retrospect.
But what does the tool itself think? This was the conclusion ChatGPT came up with when prompted to write a commentary explaining itself to the public:
“Overall, ChatGPT is a powerful and exciting new technology that has the potential to revolutionize the way we interact with machines and with each other. It brings us closer to a future where computers can understand and generate human-like text, making communication faster, more efficient and more natural.”
Spoken like a true technology disruptor… or a carny barker. Which one is ChatGPT ultimately? To quote the infallible answer machine of its day, the Magic 8 Ball, perhaps “Ask again later.”
Ian Chaffee is a technology and startup media relations consultant based in Los Angeles. He wrote this column for SiliconANGLE.
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