There have been a handful of before-and-after moments in the modern technology era. Everything was one way, and then just like that, it was suddenly obvious it would never be like that again. Netscape showed the world the internet; Facebook made that internet personal; the iPhone made plain how the mobile era would take over. There are others — there’s a dating-app moment in there somewhere, and Netflix starting to stream movies might qualify, too — but not many.
ChatGPT, which OpenAI launched a year ago today, might have been the lowest-key game-changer ever. Nobody took a stage and announced that they’d invented the future, and nobody thought they were launching the thing that would make them rich. If we’ve learned one thing in the last 12 months, it’s that no one — not OpenAI’s competitors, not the tech-using public, not even the platform’s creators — thought ChatGPT would become the fastest-growing consumer technology in history. And in retrospect, the fact that nobody saw ChatGPT coming might be exactly why it has seemingly changed everything.
In the year since ChatGPT launched, it has brought change to practically every corner of the technology industry. In a year otherwise marked by huge decline in venture-capital investing, seemingly any company with “AI” in its pitch deck is able to raise money — $17.9 billion just in the third quarter of this year, according to Pitchbook, and some of the industry’s biggest VC firms are raising huge funds just to keep pouring money into AI.
A few companies already appear to be at the head of the pack: Anthropic is shaping up to be one of OpenAI’s best and most well-funded competitors, Midjourney’s image-generating AI is improving at a remarkable pace, and even just this week Pika appeared out of nowhere with a seriously impressive AI video tool. But whether you like note-taking apps, audio-mixing tools, or easy ways to summarize meetings or books or legal documents, there’s something new and cool launching practically every day.
Meanwhile, all the way at the other end of the tech industry, AI has consumed the biggest companies on the planet. Microsoft, an OpenAI partner and investor, bet big on an AI-powered Bing while also bringing its AI “Copilots” into Office, Windows, Azure, and more. Google, which invented a lot of the foundational technology that is now suddenly everywhere, scrambled to launch Bard and the Search Generative Experience, and built Duet AI into its own workplace products. AI was the centerpiece of Amazon’s announcements this year, from the LLM-powered Alexa to a million new AI tools for AWS customers. Meta now sees AI as a critical part of its future, maybe even more so than the metaverse. AI hardware made Nvidia one of the most valuable companies on earth. Even Apple, which has moved the least aggressively of the tech giants, has begun to talk more about its AI efforts — and might have big plans for Siri coming soon. I could keep going. Call it a boom, call it a bubble, but it’s been a long time since the whole tech world was this obsessed with a single thing.
Make no mistake, though: ChatGPT is the biggest winner of the ChatGPT revolution. It doesn’t look like much — its new audio and image features are neat, but it’s mostly still just a roughly designed chat interface — and it has been plagued by reliability issues, but that didn’t stop its momentum. It had a million users in five days, 100 million after just two months, and now boasts of having 100 million every week.
ChatGPT is the biggest winner of the ChatGPT revolution
ChatGPT, and the model underneath it, have also quickly become a billion-dollar business for OpenAI. It pulled off something almost impossible: it’s both a data provider, making money from other businesses who want to build stuff on top of GPT models, and a hit consumer app in its own right. People pay $20 a month to use ChatGPT, while other companies pay lots more to use its models — OpenAI gets ‘em coming and going.
You practically can’t click a link on the internet anymore without being confronted by confident predictions about how AI will change everything. It can write your emails for you! It’s going to overrun the internet with generated crap! It can write code! It will write malware that ruins everything! It can make Pixar movies! It’s going to be stuck in the uncanny valley forever! You’ll never have a job again! You’ll never need a job again! AI will save us! AI will kill us!
It’s worth pausing here for just a second to point out that, in reality, most of this technology is still not very good. Large language models “hallucinate,” which is a nice way of saying they make stuff up, all the time. If you look at an AI image for more than about two seconds, you can always tell it was generated. The emails it writes for you always have that machine-made vibe to them. AI systems are not smarter than humans, or more creative, or really anything. Is it remarkable that they’re as good as they are? Sure! But AI so far is shaping up like self-driving cars — it got pretty good faster than anybody thought, and it’s going to be a hell of a lot of work to get good enough to be everywhere. There is absolutely no reason, right now, to think that we’re going to hit some kind of superhuman Artificial General Intelligence anytime soon. If ever.
This is the point where “nobody saw this coming” gets complicated, though. AI may not be finished yet, but it’s already better than most people expected. And even in recent weeks, OpenAI has been ripped in two by the speed with which ChatGPT has grown and OpenAI has moved to monetize it with an app store and other tools. CEO Sam Altman was briefly forced out, for reasons we still don’t exactly know: was it a power play between board members and executives, the result of a disagreement over safety, or something else entirely?
2023 has forced everyone to play catch up on What It All Means
That drama was strange and high-stakes and ultimately maybe not related to the broader question. So let’s get back to that broader question: what are we actually building here? Because this has all happened so fast, and because the effects of AI are so potentially wide-ranging, 2023 has forced everyone to play catch up on What It All Means.
OpenAI’s original mission statement was to “advance digital intelligence in the way that is most likely to benefit humanity as a whole, unconstrained by a need to generate financial return.” Which is vague, but seems good! It’s also easy to say when there’s no financial return, and much harder when analysts estimate your total addressable market is more than a trillion dollars.
Across tech, and around the world, lots of folks are pondering this same tension. If you’re Google CEO Sundar Pichai, and you’ve now spent five years unironically saying that AI is “more profound than electricity or fire,” is your responsibility to maximize its value for shareholders or for humanity? There’s not a lot of evidence that shows you can do both at once, and historically speaking, shareholders tend to win. If AI is going to change everything — like, literally everything — can it do so inside the tech industry and economy we know? Is the AI we need the same thing as the AI that makes the most money?
Is your responsibility to maximize AI’s value for shareholders or for humanity?
We definitely seem to like being able to more quickly write business emails, and we like being able to ask Excel to “make this into a bar graph” instead of hunting through menus. We like being able to code just by telling ChatGPT what we want our app to do. But do we want SEO-optimized, AI-generated news stories to take over publications we used to love? Do we want AI bots that act like real-life characters and become anthropomorphized companions in our lives? Should we think of AI more as a tool or a collaborator? If an AI tool can be trained to create the exact song / movie / image / story I want right now, is that art or is that dystopia? Even as we start to answer those questions, AI tech seems to always stay one step and one cultural revolution ahead.
At the same time, there have been lawsuits accusing AI companies of stealing artists’ work, to which multiple US judges have said, essentially: our existing copyright laws just don’t know what to do with AI at all. Lawmakers have wrung their hands about AI safety, and President Joe Biden signed a fairly generic executive order that instructed agencies to create safety standards and companies to do good and not evil. There’s a case to be made that the AI revolution was built on immoral and / or illegal grounds, and yet the creators of these models and companies continue to confidently go ahead with their plans, while saying it’s both impossible and anti-progress to stop them or slow them down.
This all gets really heady really fast, I know. And the truth is, nobody knows where all this will be even 12 months from now, especially not the people making the loudest predictions. All you have to do is look at recent hype cycles — the blockchain, the metaverse, and many others — for evidence that things don’t usually turn out the way we think. But there’s so much momentum behind the AI revolution, and so many companies deeply invested in its future, that it’s hard to imagine GPTs going the way of NFTs.
If anything, the next 12 months of the AI industry will move even faster than the last 12. OpenAI’s tech has improved drastically since that first ChatGPT launch, as has its competitors’. And the whole industry has had a year to think about all the places AI might be useful in our lives and profitable in their products. There will be new companies building AI chips, AI data centers, and the rest of the massive infrastructure required to make an LLM work at speed and at scale. We’re going to get a slew of AI-centric gadgets, like the Humane AI Pin, as companies try to figure out if chatbots can push us to the post-smartphone era. (Though, personally, I wouldn’t bet against screens anytime soon.)
We don’t know yet if AI will ultimately change the world the way the internet, social media, and the smartphone did. Those things weren’t just technological leaps — they actually reorganized our lives in fundamental and irreversible ways. If the final form of AI is “my computer writes some of my emails for me,” AI won’t make that list. But there are a lot of smart people and trillions of dollars betting that’s the beginning of the AI story, not the end. If they’re right, the day OpenAI launched its “research preview” of ChatGPT will be much more than a product launch for the ages. It’ll be the day the world changed, and we didn’t even see it coming.