You may remember – or you’ve seen pictures of – ancient computers. Screens with text and a keyboard attached. Or even older, a teletype – a 60 lbs typewriter with a big roll of paper, really slow and very noisy. Attached to some computer in a room nearby. A noisy monster guarded by important-looking men (yes, seriously!) in gray lab-coats. Stone age. 50 years ago. That’s where ChatGPT is at today.
Actually, a 1980s style PC is ancient enough. The point is ‘text only’ just like ChatGPT. Yes, we can talk to it and get voice responses, but the voice part is an add-on, added cushion between you and the machine. Your phone can do that.
The computing monsters of the 60s and 70s were marvels of their time. Incredible achievements with the potential to change the world. Which they did – and the changes were nothing like we anticipated. Correction: The changes were somewhat like anticipated – but only for a short time. Then it really took off, and here we are – 2023 – with unbelievable capability in our pockets, all taken for granted.
The computers in your doorbell and that remote from yesteryear in the drawer are much more powerful than the monsters from back then. More powerful but a lot less useful. Which makes sense. The old monsters cost tons of money. They had to be useful – big time, broad scale. The computer in the doorbell costs 50 cents or less and is programmed to do only one thing, maybe a couple.
The stone age marvels delivered incredible, even unbelievable results – back then. Just like ChatGPT and its likes (yes, there is a handful of them out there, the race is on) are doing today. The analogy isn’t unique but surprisingly close – take a look at this:
Here’s an excerpt from a recent (very readable) article on ChatGPT (20 Entertaining Uses of ChatGPT You Never Knew Were Possible by Mark Schaefer), minimally edited replacing ‘ChatGPT’ with ‘Computers’.
“Our ACME community has been on fire, exploring the breathtaking possibilities of Computers. The uses of Computers are simply endless and intoxicating. It’s still early days. Companies are trying to figure out the legal and ethical implications of a world suddenly turned on its head by ‘number crunchers’. And yet … applying powerful Computers to everyday tasks is awesome.”
Could this have been written 50 years ago? Of course it could – and I’m sure you got the point already: What can descendants of ChatGPT do – and what will the world look like – 50 years from now?
It’s an unreasonable time frame for obvious reasons, so let’s shorten it to 5 or 10 years. Given where we are today, try to imagine what ChatGPT-like services can deliver in 5 years. I know, it’s hard – just like we had no clue when computers started the digital revolution. Is it scary? In some ways it is. Is it fascinating? You bet. Is it promising? No question.
Like back then – and just sticking to the obvious – is enough to keep our minds busy for hours and days. In medicine, the arts, all variants of science & research, education, law enforcement, politics and much more — while avoiding the ‘dark’ side. It may be scary enough as it is because it’s obvious that many of the jobs we do today will go away. And I’m not talking about bullshit jobs, they should go regardless (see Quit Pseudowork – work on things that matter).
But wait, tech has eliminated old jobs and created new ones for ages, what else is new? An important reminder. This isn’t a revolution, it’s evolution. Michio Kaku put it bluntly a few years ago:
It’s a fast-changing world and we need to change with it. Actually, we need to participate, not ‘wait and see what happens’ as one misguided world leader used to say a few years ago. The truth is that our attitude is a more serious threat than job elimination: Technology invites humans to become zombies. If we don’t resist, what comes next is less important, right?
Barring that option and given the current state of the world, can the robots/chatbots/whatever-bots help? Indeed they can. It’s actually very likely that some of the scientific breakthroughs we’ve been waiting for (and some we haven’t discovered yet) will come thanks to the power of the new ‘giga-bots’. Fission, hydrogen, carbon capture, vaccines, medicine etc. Not because the bots are intelligent, they most definitely aren’t. But they’re incredibly powerful, smart by many metrics, and they can pull together and make sense of knowledge and information at speeds and in quantities humans can never do – by orders of magnitude.
In many ways we’re lucky to live in this stone age. An(other) age of big breakthroughs. We really need that. But it’s not going to happen if we lean back and ‘just wait and see’.
Finally, remember this: Machines are not humans. They don’t feel, think, ponder, dream, inspire. They don’t get the creative itch (see Inspiration: The (creative) itch), they aren’t alive. That doesn’t make them inferior, but different. They are tools and helpers, not masters.
And not the least: When we are flabbergasted by ChatGPT’s ‘creative’ writing, it’s not because it’s incredibly good. It’s because it’s surprisingly good coming from a machine. In the same way a toddler will impress us if walking at 7 months age. Creating expectations more than immediate results. It’s great!
Welcome to the new stone age.