SIMON SWANEPOEL: ChatGPT, the disrupter of original disrupters
ChatGPT is taking the world by storm and dumbfounding futurists, educators, newsrooms, companies and governments precisely because it can do what we do, and in some cases, do it better
The biblical adage is that “What has been, will be again, and what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun,” but with the incredible rate of new technological advancements many are wondering if there’ll be anything familiar to our lives in the decades to come.
Experts are calling artificial intelligence (AI) the most powerful technology ever created, and it is advancing faster than you can say “ChatGPT”. For those who don’t already know, ChatGPT is the open source AI platform that has the world abuzz with its capability to take us beyond automation and pattern recognition to generating human-like content.
It seems that whenever there’s a new tech disrupter on the (virtual) block, people split into two camps: those that glow with the prospect of newfound opportunities and those that worry about destructive impacts and their potential to destabilise societies. I’m in the camp that is looking forward to this brave, new, albeit uncertain world.
Billionaire entrepreneur and Chief Twit Elon Musk — an advocate for government regulation of AI — believes we will live in an era of abundance. He also argues that human labour will grow in demand because the global birth rate is declining (with Africa being an exception due to our youthful population). As the developed world has advanced, so birth rates have decreased.
If we silence our fears about an i-robot takeover, we will see machines need human labour, and minds, to operate optimally. For example, in the self-driving vehicle sector, feared to replace most human drivers, companies depend on a myriad behind-the-scenes workers, while drivers remain in high demand. Bloomberg points out that self-driving technology is nowhere near replacing human jobs.
ChatGPT is taking the world by storm and dumbfounding futurists, educators, newsrooms, companies and governments precisely because it can do what we do, and in some cases, do it better. Though Microsoft, Google and other big tech companies recently cut jobs, language models like ChatGPT are meant to assist and augment our jobs by improving efficiency and accuracy. They aren’t meant to replace us. Or so we are told.
Pengcheng Shi, an associate dean in the department of computing and information sciences at Rochester Institute of Technology was recently quoted in the New York Post saying: “AI is replacing the white-collar workers. I don’t think anyone can stop that. This is not crying wolf. The wolf is at the door”.
A 2014 analysis by The Economist estimated that machines would replace 47% of all jobs by 2034. Nearing a decade later, these doomsday prophecies have not manifested. In contrast to these predictions, a 2020 World Economic Forum report estimated that while 85-million jobs would be replaced by machines by 2025, an estimated 97-million new jobs would be created to support the AI sector. So that’s a creation of 12-million additional jobs.
Despite the projected job replacements that AI will cause, I see this evolution of technology as good news for the workforce of the future. If you look back at technological advancement over the years there’s a track record of net positive impacts made possible by disruptive companies like Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook and Twitter.
Think of how technology has opened possibilities in Africa and connected us to a globalised world — from seeing and speaking virtually with family members thousands of miles away, to sending them remittances, to seamlessly navigating our workplaces, managing our finances with digital banking, to accessing quality healthcare in rural villages and reporting infrastructure outages. All of this has been made possible, or better, with the help of innovative devices, gadgets and apps, many of which are using AI.
We as humans must continue to develop, grow and advance our societies, because just like a river becomes a swamp when it ceases to flow, we must keep moving forward. To stop progressing is to die.
There were AI tools long before ChatGPT and there will be many to follow. Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant are AI tools giving users answers to questions based on their database of information. But honestly, how often do you chat with Siri asking about the weather or to solve a maths equation or to order your groceries? Likely not very often. In fact, according to this article from Insider Intelligence in September, it’s estimated that “only 27.1% of US internet users and 24.2% of the total population will use Google Assistant this year. We forecast that 25.8% of internet users will use Siri this year, as will 23% of the overall US population. Growth in Alexa users will mirror the slower growth seen in Amazon’s Echo smart speakers”.
Currently, the most valuable attribute about ChatGPT is helping users write content faster, but it comes with its issues. AI tools are known to commit inherent biases that reflect our societal imperfections and purport stereotypes in a way that does not benefit minorities or the previously disadvantaged.
The content isn’t perfect, but it’s off to a great start. It does save time and is good for doing the groundwork, but ChatGPT’s copy requires human refinement and personalisation. Grammatical errors need to be fixed, repetition needs to be removed and originality and authenticity need to be injected into content.
And what happens when the tech crashes? AI is fantastic, but technology always has the potential to crash, get hacked or to succumb to the all-powerful force (or lack thereof) called load-shedding.
As life becomes more layered with complex technologies, new jobs and industries could mushroom to help people decipher and decode AI applications, ensuring businesses and industries are built upon sound and ethical foundations. We may see a lot more charlatans and quacks emerging as technobabble baffles minds. We will need to fact check and vet data relentlessly. As the world becomes an infinitely more confusing place, modern-day sages would do well to prepare and upskill to help us navigate this unknown future.
We run the risk of diminishing our quality of life with AI, our sense of awe and happiness with life. Furthermore, it has the potential to make the ordinary man in society less intelligent (why do I need to write my law exams if ChatGPT can pass them for me?). So, we need to actively resist the force of entropy and our craving for convenience.
After all, too much convenience would mean bingeing our lives away on Netflix, living on fast food, overspending on online shopping, cheating on your university assignments and taking all manner of shortcuts to get our way. I don’t think relying too heavily on AI fosters independence and creativity and it certainly cannot ever reproduce the essence and soul of what makes us human — conscience, love, and liberty.
• Swanepoel is CEO of ISP RocketNet.
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