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The year ChatGPT changed almost everything

Tan KW
Publish date: Fri, 01 Dec 2023, 03:08 PM
Tan KW
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When AI researcher Sasha Luccioni went to business conferences and speaking events last year, she would field basic questions like: “What is artificial intelligence?” Now, she said, the people she meets are not only familiar with AI, they’re worried about whether it will “take over the world”.

What changed, she said, was ChatGPT. On Nov 30 last year, the public gained access to OpenAI’s chatbot, which could create expansive - though not always reliable - written responses to simple prompts from users. It fundamentally shifted how people think about artificial intelligence, if they ever thought about it at all.

For years, tech companies used AI to make recommendations, detect harmful content online and power self-driving cars. With ChatGPT, however, AI wasn’t just something operating under the hood of products; it was the product.

Almost overnight, people began using ChatGPT to write song lyrics, draft emails, summarise documents and craft speeches at weddings. Some even turned it into their personal therapist. Where previous chatbots were often an annoyance, ChatGPT, with its simple user interface and rapid-fire colourful responses, was a source of genuine awe and amusement. One year later, ChatGPT is used by 100 million people a week, according to OpenAI.

“ChatGPT was the point when AI came into the public consciousness,” said Luccioni, who works at AI startup HuggingFace. But with that also came a new era of AI anxiety.

There were numerous reports that ChatGPT, which is built on a vast trove of online data to generate relevant responses, could spread misinformation, perpetuate biases, threaten jobs and help students cheat on assignments. Schools banned and unbanned the service. Regulators held hearings and summits about artificial intelligence. Writers and actors went on strike in part over concerns that AI would devalue their work. And many industry leaders signed a short statement about “the risk of extinction from AI”.

The tension between the promise and peril of AI spilled into full view just ahead of ChatGPT’s one-year anniversary. OpenAI fired co-founder and chief executive officer Sam Altman in part following disagreements with the board on how fast to develop and monetise artificial intelligence, people familiar with the matter previously told Bloomberg. OpenAI and Altman struck an agreement for him to be reinstated as CEO days later following a mutiny by employees.

With all the “hype talk around AI, you create anxiety”, said Fei-Fei Li, a pioneer in the artificial intelligence field and co-director of Stanford’s Human-Centered AI Institute. To some, AI tools like ChatGPT suddenly heralded a future when artificial intelligence surpasses humans and possibly wreaks havoc.

To others, ChatGPT and its peers are simply more powerful versions of autocomplete and build on previous AI advancements. “This has been an inflection point in AI,” Li said, “but not the only one.”

None of the concerns stopped the advancement of, and investment in, AI. In the year since ChatGPT launched, OpenAI has introduced more powerful AI models, the option to build customised ChatGPT experiences and a feature that lets the chatbot respond to spoken questions and commands with speech of its own. Meanwhile, a growing list of startups and big tech companies are racing to keep up.

Investors poured more than US$21bil into generative AI startups in the first nine months of this year, up from just over US$5bil last year, according to data from PitchBook. Much of that has come from tech giants like Microsoft Corp, Amazon.com Inc and Alphabet Inc’s Google, which bet billions on AI startups to cement their position in the rapidly evolving market. Those deals reshaped the balance of power in tech, with Microsoft vaulting ahead of rivals in the AI race thanks to its partnership with OpenAI.

The frenzy over AI extended far beyond the tech industry. JPMorgan is testing AI applications that can generate earnings summaries for every company that the bank tracks and a helpdesk service that provides problem-solving steps. Health care professionals are using AI to automatically turn patient conversations into notes. Media companies leaned on AI to write articles - making some blatant errors in the process. And politicians are turning to AI for speechwriting, campaigning and fundraising.

There have been 20 times more jobs that list AI in the title or job description since ChatGPT premiered, according to a November report from jobs site Indeed. And those roles aren’t just isolated to the tech industry.

“There’s been explosive growth in AI job postings,” said Nick Bunker, the director of North American economic research at Indeed. However, the number of AI roles remains small overall, accounting for six in 10,000 listings posted to the job site.

Even though ChatGPT kicked off the frenzy around generative AI, the market is much bigger than ChatGPT. Today, businesses and everyday users can turn to a growing list of AI chatbots, including Bard, Claude, Pi, Grok and, most recently, Q, from Amazon. Generative AI is here to stay - and it will only become more advanced.

“We should be ahead of the curve in responsible use for this technology,” Li said. “It has substantially increased the conversations and debates, but we need to approach it more thoughtfully through providing education and context.”

 - Bloomberg

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