ChatGPT: Is the generative AI tech the new fire or the new CB Radio?

ChatGPT mobile application

The deluge of articles about ChatGPT is vainly battling the tsunami of high school essays, half-baked songs, and mansplained opinion pieces generated by the latest ‘AI’ bot. The fact that ChatGPT hit 100m users four times faster than Tiktok and seven faster than Instagram suggests it is either going to rock our world or go pop like an over-inflated spy balloon.

Fire was a technology harnessed by humans over one million years ago and marked a giant leap forward for our raw meat-eating, dark-fearing ancestors. How big? It’s up there with wheels, ropes, writing and agriculture in the Top Five technologies of all time.

Citizen’s Band Radio (CB Radio), thankfully now passed into obscurity, was a 1970s 2-way radio tech that was the spooky forerunner to 2023’s social media chat groups, a walled garden with all the stupid nicknames and insider speak we see repeated today on Tiktok. At the intersection of pop culture and tech, it did not change the world, despite the hype. 

What does ChatGPT bring to operations?

But beyond the novelty of bots, why the rush to adopt business tools that seem to only amount to digital parrots with exceptional memories? What human or business itch is being scratched by ChatGPT and its many Large Language Model (LLM) peers? Are we standing at the launchpad of a major societal and business expedition to the future?

There’s little historical proof that money can be saved by replacing humans with tech to deliver customer service, sales proposals or marketing pitches – despite the free trials, pay per use, and open source offers. As Thoughtworks has long known, 80% of the cost of owning software comes after you’ve deployed it to work – and to date, very little of that software has had the capacity to generate lawsuits from plagiarism or poor advice.

Have the middle managerial classes simply had enough of the talking back from a generation described by a member of Elon Musk’s circle as the ‘skittle haired, pet bereavement leave-loving HR types’, which we wrongfully cram into the general classification of millennials?

Struggling to get them all to #RTO (return to office), are we seeing the politics of robots echo forward from their early 20th century origins in the Czech film Rossum’s Universal Robots, where the factory managers solved the workers’ failure to comply with orders by replacing them with ‘roboti’. It didn’t end well for humanity in that morality play.

Just a decade after Rossum’s Universal Robots, in 1931 British economist JM Keynes infamously predicted his grandchildren would be working a 15 hour work week –  one of the first predictions of humans being freed of the drudge of repetitive work by automation.

The other side of the coin

And who doesn’t want to get out of the toil of copying and pasting this year’s OKRs, filling in forms, writing marketing emails, completing your annual performance review, updating 20-year-old software, or shit-posting on Linked In? Alas the British economist was woefully wrong, though with ChatGPT his naive optimism may not have died when he did.

Whilst not quite as old as fire, the invention known as slavery does have an ugly habit of popping up across history as the simplest method of creating immense surplus wealth for societies, with free labour generating super-profits and super lifestyles for minority owners.

Are these bots the new slave-class? The underlying narrative of ChatGPT is so enchanting to people, it helps us turn a blind eye to the shortcomings of the echo chamber of high-speed, mansplained answers that the bots have been regurgitating since November 2022.

A libertarian vision where we enslave low-cost ‘others’ to work for us while we peel grapes; the power of AI as a magical tech; combined with the mystery of wealth creation has us leaning into our screens. With NFTs tossed aside like cheap Christmas novelty toys, we needed another hit. We do love a good revenge story too – but it appears the crowds baying for the end of Google’s search monopoly, through chat-driven models, is sorely misplaced.

You might chat your way to an answer, but the bot will likely be consulting Google’s results in the back office before parroting its reply. It will have scarily personalised ads everywhere (these businesses aren’t charities), and I want a trustworthy search result, not an argument.

Final thoughts

Whatever happens next, 2023’s frenzy over ChatGPT and the questions it has dragged into the boardrooms of Aussie companies are a great practice run for the next 20 years of ethical ultimatums that will be brought down by GPT 4, 5 and ultimately a more generalised AI.

Scholar Toby Walsh put an AGI flag in the sand for it potentially arriving in 2062, as an average of estimates by futurists – the arrival of the singularity where you can’t tell the difference between machine and human thought. At that point, the world will likely be relying on those same skittle-haired millennials, now retiring with grey hair, to do the right thing.

10-4 and keep your ears on little buddies.

Nigel Dalton is a Social Scientist at Thoughtworks.