AI: Is Everybody Going Crazy?
I named this article after the song embedded above, which I recommend using as a soundtrack.
Did you imagine the world would be as it is today when you were a kid? I always watched science-fiction movies with a great deal of skepticism, especially about the negative aspects. I didn’t think we’d be invaded by aliens, or ruled by merciless machines. I also didn’t believe that we’d turn into feral beings fighting for natural scarce resources and survival. I did believe in flying cars, laser guns, super intelligent computers, fancy clinics where the worst injuries would be cured almost instantaneously… Yes, I was naive, as any kid was. As any kid still is.
But we’re in that future now, and I don’t know what to believe anymore. I work in tech, and yet, I feel unable to foresee where we’re going in terms of technology. And as a citizen, I don’t feel like I can make long term plans, because the world has become incredibly unstable. Not that making long term plans is any important, compared to the threats we are facing. Climate change is accelerating, I don’t recognize the weather anymore, I am not used to it. I feel like I have moved to another country with a different climate altogether. I used to know what to wear, in which area of the city it would be colder or hotter. I used to look forward to weather transitions, you know, spring and autumn. Now there’s only summer and winter. And what about rain? The other day I heard a distant thunder, and I was almost surprised. Because the one I heard before that happened months ago.
But I am not going to give you a speech about climate change, something undeniable that for some reason a lot of people refuse to believe in. In this article, I am going to talk about something else that’s taken the world by storm: Artificial Intelligence.
2023 will be remembered as the year AI exploded, although to be fair, AI has existed since way before. But in this article, we’ll talk about how the world has rapidly changed in just 6 months, but the revolution has just begun!
The Automation Frenzy: A Prelude to the AI Storm
As I was saying, Artificial Intelligence isn’t a new concept. The term was coined back in 1956, when my mother was 2 years old. It flourished from 1957 to 1974. The interest (and investment) boomed in the first decades of the 21st century, but we, the “common people”, didn’t pay much attention as that was unfolding. Global spending on AI was “just” 37.5 billion US dollars in 2019. It’s June 2023 and we’re at 97.9 billion so far (according to Forbes).
How did the AI craziness start? For many people, there’s one product that changed everything: ChatGPT. Introduced in November 2022, ChatGPT gained one million users in its first week after launch. Currently receives an estimated 1 billion monthly website visitors with an estimated 100 million active users. The tool set a record for having the fastest-growing user base in history for a consumer application, gaining 1 million users in just 5 days. Let that sink in for a moment. No, really, stop for one second and think about these numbers. ChatGPT was suddenly everywhere:
- In our thoughts,
- In the news,
- In every marketer meeting,
- In many CEOs cust-cutting (aka layoffs) roadmap.
We couldn’t escape the tool, unless we were living under a rock. Soon its popularity and the possibilities it presented were backed up by some other different but complementary tools. Coders could now use Copilot to generate code for them. Artists (or anyone willing to impress their Instagram audience) started using Midjourney and Stable Diffusion to generate photorealistic imagery with just a prompt. Speaking of prompts, we started being bombarded by AI/Prompt gurus in Social Media, selling us tricks, courses and recipes to get rich fast, just by using their prompts. A prompt, in case you don’t know, is just a phrase in natural language that describes what you want. The more descriptive the better, obviously. But natural language in the end, no special framework or structure is required. Just being able to describe what you want. And yet, “AI Experts” popped up everywhere promising to teach you how to speak (or write) better than you can.
Big companies like Adobe, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, all jumped both feet into the AI wagon. And then the already powerful AI Storm became a typhoon. It’s now unstoppable.
The Generative AI Revolution: Creativity and Disruption
Every week, there was a breakthrough. Literally, every week. Sometimes, every day. And it’s not smoke, it’s literally impressive technological and creative achievements. It happened so fast that everybody got scared. When I say everybody I mean the people who used to do creative work in “old school ways”. Because their customers, the people paying for that work, claim that they can now do it themselves. They’re saving money and are very happy about it. But designers, photographers, filmmakers, writers, lawyers, and even programmers were worried with all this stuff going on. Nobody knew for how long they’d keep their jobs. Not just small people, also huge companies are seeing their business disrupted, and that forces them to jump on top of the problem and change their direction, rushing to join the revolution or die.
Fortunately, after the first tsunami of negativity, people started thinking that this might not be the end. We just need to adapt, embrace the revolution, be a part of it. And yes, that’s an option, of course. However, while we were telling ourselves that AI wasn’t the end of our source of incomes, layoffs accelerated. According to layoffs.fyi, the number of layoffs in the US was 95,000 in 2020. The number went up to 208.000 in 2023 (so far, it’s still June). So yes, we’re trying to stay positive, we want to believe that AI will help us and not replace us. This next sentence might sound “woke” to some of you, but I believe that AI under capitalism means replacing people. I mean, think about it, whatever political ideals you hold. If you have a tool that can do the same work than a crowd of people, why would you keep paying for those people? Yes, you can have your values and principles, but if you lead a company with stakeholders, I am afraid you’ll choose to cut costs. Same as everybody else.
AI and the Global Crisis: A Catalyst for Change?
We’re now struggling to accommodate the new reality into our existence. All of this happens in the middle of a global crisis, with Russia slaughtering innocent people, taking their children away and bombing their country each and every day. Which has led to global instability, inflation and humanitarian crisis. The world is split in two: crooked Russia and China, with their usual smaller authoritarian sympathizers on one hand. And “the West” (as they call us) on the other. So the technological wonders of AI happen in a context of uncertainty, fear and hostility. Not ideal, right?
The world is changing, and it’s changing fast. On top of it, and forgive me for bringing this up again, the climate change crisis is accelerating while the world goes to shit in terms of geopolitics.
Some people think change is always good. Some even say that AI came to rescue the planet, enabling us to find solutions to the myriad problems we’re facing. But the truth is that the most visible efforts, the products making the headlines, are all designed to make more money and cut more costs. Or to do your work faster, however you want to phrase it.
Societal Implications and Ethical Concerns
So you can imagine that the restlessness is justified. The concerns and implications arising from the AI revolution during times of crisis are many, and I feel we’re not talking enough about that part. Are we focusing on issues related to job displacement, income inequality, and social unrest resulting from mass layoffs and increased reliance on automation? We know it’s the elephant in the room, and of course the concern is there. But are we really doing everything to explore the ethical and social considerations surrounding AI? Policymakers and AI developers, I am looking at you.
There is a need for individuals, businesses, and governments to adapt to the AI revolution while navigating the challenges of the global crisis. I haven’t seen any credible plan to upskill and retrain the workforce to thrive in an AI-driven economy. The US and Europe are proposing policy recommendations and regulations to ensure responsible AI development and deployment, but is that good enough? And more importantly: has that provided any peace of mind to the affected professionals and companies?
I work in tech and I am myself a bit scared. It’s all happening too fast and although it’s cool and all, it’s also a bit terrifying too. Not because I fear losing my job, I am sure it will transition towards something else. I have been learning new things my whole career, and this time it won’t be any different. Although, will there be enough jobs for everybody? Will we reach a level where humans can’t really compete with AI, we’ll we be needed at all?
Also, I think about my kids. If the world has changed a lot since the Internet became mainstream, I can’t imagine the pace in which it’ll profoundly change from now on. What are their prospects for succeeding? What kind of education will they need to have had, that they’re not yet receiving? Because the changes are happening in the technological and business realms, not so much in society and the way we’re preparing our children for the future. For them, nothing is going on, it’s business as usual. Our kids might be a lost generation, who were born unprepared and got an education that didn’t consider their actual future.
So while everybody seems to go crazy about AI, I remember my childhood. I think about how I imagined the future. I was naive, yes, but the things I didn’t see coming, no one else did either. Now that we’re here, we need to think very carefully about where we’re going. For us, for our children, for the whole freaking planet.
I don’t want to close this article on a negative note. I believe in the opportunities that technological breakthroughs bring to the table. I am not concerned about AI or murderous robots. My concern is about we as a society, and how we are going to manage things so we don’t turn opportunity into hell. We still have time to do this properly. Evolution never asked anyone, but this time we have a say. Let’s take the chance.