“Look Dave, I can see you’re really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over.” HAL 9000, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
In the Spring of 1968, Arthur C. Clarke published 2001: A Space Odyssey and by the fall of that same year, Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation was in theatres. Both the book and the movie centre around the terrifying and fascinating dynamic between fictional characters HAL 9000, a sentient artificial intelligence computer and the spacecraft crew member crewman, David Bowman. Spoiler alert – a life-and-death battle ensues in which Dave is, by a narrow margin, the last man standing. The message here, AI is coming and it will be a mixed bag for humanity.
Earlier this week, I found myself thinking back on this work of fiction as I played around with the latest AI chatbot, known as ChatGPT. Created by the research and development firm OpenAI, GPT stands for Generative Pre-Trained Transformer, and ChatGPT uses “a machine learning technique called Reinforcement Learning from Human Feedback (RLHF), [allowing it to] simulate dialogue, answer follow-up questions, admit mistakes, challenge incorrect premises and reject inappropriate requests.” By harnessing the vast mines of accumulated online knowledge it can solve problems and generate written query replies at an unprecedented speed. Rather than just delivering an answer, this technology allows for an exchange between the user and the technology. It remembers and adjusts iteratively, just like a real dialogue and the exchange can become more complex through use.
As yet, ChatGPT does not have access to the internet or real-time data, but that will likely come soon as people speculate this is the beginning of the end of the search engine as we know it. (Looking at you Google).
ChatGPT is the latest in a series of chatbot technology developments, but these earlier efforts have failed to take off. Microsoft’s AI bot Tay was taken down in 2016 after Twitter users taught it to say racist, sexist and offensive remarks. Blenderbot, developed by Meta, suffered similar issues this year. The release of ChatGPT, by all accounts, represents a watershed moment, however. When access was opened up to trial public use in late November 2022, users flooded the platform, and terms like “scary good”, “game-changer”, and “mind-blowing” have been flying around with abandon ever since. You can ask ChatGPT to explain something to you and as such, you can use it to write an article or an essay. It can also write poems, tell jokes, get philosophical, and debate political issues. On various social media, users are sharing their experiments and apparently, ChatGPT has an IQ of 83 and passed the American Bar Exam with 70 percent! Microsoft research engineer Shital Shah predicted “we are less than three years away from AI being able to handle search queries ‘much better’ than search engines.”
The race is on, and with this latest iteration in AI technology, it is possible to see a not-too-distant future wherein AI is fully integrated into our daily lives. For now, you may be asking yourself how you or your business might benefit from emerging AI technologies. ChatGPT’s capacity to deliver answers, summarize information, write text, and perform a range of tasks opens up possibilities relative to digital marketing, online content creation, answering customer service queries, writing and debugging code. It already demonstrates some talent for original thought and creativity. Right now, there are about 49 different tools you can explore on your way to having your very own virtual assistant. One clever user has already roped it into helping with this year’s holiday shopping. (Note to self – consult ChatGPT for Christmas gifts.)
But here is the big question: Will artificial intelligence actually benefit humankind?
In its invitation to demo this version, OpenAI has made it abundantly clear that access to ChatGPT is free, which also raises the very real possibility that this may not always be the case. Remember: OpenAI, founded in San Francisco in late 2015 by Sam Altman, Elon Musk and other investors, began as a non-profit artificial general intelligence research company that embraced a lofty goal: “To make sure that artificial intelligence benefits all of humankind.” Just four short years later, in 2019, OpenAI transitioned from a non-profit to a “capped” for-profit company. To be fair, the development work is labour-intensive and expensive, and the company remained on brand with some of its ideals by providing distributed equity to its employees.
So, will artificial intelligence benefit all of humankind? The short answer is very likely. The more complicated reality is the degree to which all humans will benefit equally.
At the same time as OpenAI transitioned from non-profit to for-profit, it also entered into a partnership with Microsoft Corporation, which announced an investment package of US$1 billion into the company. Following that, OpenAI revealed its intention to commercially license its technologies, with Microsoft as its preferred partner. As AI develops, the implications of OpenAI’s evolution are potentially significant in ways that go far beyond the old ‘free trial’ bait and switch. Digital access is already a differentiator in terms of equity. At a micro-level, will those who can pay benefit and those who cannot fall behind? At a macro-level, does the coming AI revolution doom poorer countries to greater poverty? Moreover, who is at the top of the “food chain” in terms of the data feeding hundreds of downstream applications raises all kinds of questions about supply chain transparency. Do those at the top of the data food chain bear any responsibility for those who rely on its supply? Who holds them accountable if they don’t?
And here is another big question: Is it possible that such technology might one day replace humans?
Well, we can take comfort in the fact that it has yet to master independent thought or experience emotions. It is limited to the data it has access to and whatever biases and inaccuracies that data might have. It can be tricked; it will make mistakes and it does not have the capacity for morality or judgment. Yet. Without question, some occupations will be lost or irrevocably transformed through AI, just as it is inevitable that new roles and capacities will be required of humans. But don’t take my word for it. Listen to what ChatGPT had to say when Australian journalist, Andrew Chappelle asked whether it was coming after his job:
“It is unlikely that your role … could be replaced by AI in the near future. While AI algorithms are capable of generating videos and other content, they are not yet able to replicate the creativity, storytelling ability, and human judgement that are essential to producing engaging and compelling video journalism.
Instead, it is more likely that AI will be used to augment your work, by providing assistance with tasks like video editing and analysis. For example, AI could be used to help you identify patterns and trends in your footage, or to automate certain aspects of the editing process …”
My advice? Unless you are a lawyer, take a stress pill. And keep one hand on the plug.