By William J. Furney
Bill Gates says two types of technology have been revolutionary in his lifetime — the first, the development of the graphical user interface, which paved the way for the personal computer and its clickable icons that manipulated the inner workings of the machines.
That was almost half a century ago — back in 1980 — when the cofounder of a fledgling Microsoft was given a demonstration of the tech by programmer Charles Simonyi.
Gates experienced what he calls the second technology revolution just months ago, when one of the world’s richest people saw the results of a challenge he had set a team at OpenAI, a company Microsoft has ploughed $10 billion into to develop an artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot called ChatGPT.
The team had been training the AI to answer questions, but Gates wanted to know if the chatbot would go beyond that and do something it hadn’t been trained for — specifically to pass an advanced biology exam, a test that incorporates critical thinking.
“I thought the challenge would keep them busy for two or three years. They finished it in just a few months,” Gates writes on his blog.
The language-learning model got 59 of 60 multiple-choice questions right and gave “outstanding answers” to six others. An external expert marked the exam and gave ChatGPT an A+.
“Once it had aced the test, we asked it a non-scientific question: ‘What do you say to a father with a sick child?’ ,” writes Gates. “It wrote a thoughtful answer that was probably better than most of us in the room would have given. The whole experience was stunning.
“I knew I had just seen the most important advance in technology since the graphical user interface.”
Since its launch to the global public in November last year, in a free research-preview phase, ChatGPT stirred up such excitement that, by January, it had around 100 million users — setting a record as the fastest-growing application ever. People were using it to write essays, articles, social media posts, generate code for apps, look up medical information and just about anything else you can think of — something they were used to doing on Google — and the technology was mostly giving them what they wanted, with a polite smile.
OpenAI slapped a $20 monthly subscription fee on a premium Plus version of the service, and the system groaned, strained and crashed as user demand soared.
Google, caught on the back foot by the app’s popularity, scrambled to launch its own AI — Bard, which is now available in the US and UK and is having something of a messy start, given the rush to get it out. Microsoft had earlier launched its own AI chatbot, integrating it into its Bing search engine and Edge browser.
Bill Gates is not using ChatGPT to write articles, or blog posts; instead, he says, he’s wondering how it can solve some of the biggest issues around the globe, including improving education and battling climate change.
Others, unlike Gates, are wondering if the tech is going to put them out of a job, as new technology has a habit of doing. On the chopping block may be writers, customer service staff, bookkeepers, computer coders — even artists, as OpenAI has an AI digital painting solution too, DALL·E 2, and Midjourney on the Discord platform has become a popular way to get free AI-generated graphics (and where I got the image for this article).
Journalists worried if AI might also swipe their jobs only have to look to Britain’s Reach PLC media group — owner of the Mirror, Express and dozens of digital titles around the country — and its use of ChatGPT to write articles. It comes, though, at a time when the publisher is slashing hundreds of editorial jobs.
On the ethical implications of reading something written by a robot — is it fake, a scam, cheating? — bosses at media groups like Reach are quick to point out that the process is started, overseen and edited by a person. It’s the tech that’s doing the heavy lifting — say, sorting through reams of survey data to write an article. Companies see ChatGPT and the growing list of rival chatbots as a surefire way to slash overheads (jobs) and become more efficient and profitable.
So yes, jobs are at risk in the new era of AI, but some, like OpenAI CEO Sam Altman say that will open up new and better opportunities for people. But even he’s not sure about where ChatGPT is headed and what it’s ultimately capable of, as he said in an interview with ABC News.
Regulation may be required to rein-in a fast-unfolding technology that promises to reshape our lives, one that’s as revolutionary as the internet and smartphones, as Gates has said. And now that this tantalising Pandora’s box of tech tricks has been opened, there’s no going back.
“Artificial intelligence chatbots like me have the potential to change the world in various ways, such as improving communication, increasing efficiency and providing assistance in numerous fields,” ChatGPT told me.
“While AI chatbots are likely to continue shaping the world, their impact will depend on how society addresses these concerns and ensures the responsible development and deployment of AI systems. There may not be a way to ‘go back’ to a world without AI, but it’s essential to strike a balance between leveraging the potential benefits of AI and mitigating its risks. This involves creating regulations, fostering ethical AI development and focusing on AI systems that augment human capabilities rather than replace them.”