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We love wave analogies, especially to describe technological shifts. For example, The Third Wave is a 1980 book by Alvin Toffler that described a post-industrial society. Toffler coined the term “Information Age” to describe this wave. Just launched is The Coming Wave by Mustafa Suleyman, the CEO and cofounder of Inflection AI and a venture partner at Greylock Partners. Previously, he cofounded pioneering AI lab DeepMind. This background provides him with a unique perspective on what comes next with AI.
In a recent Business Insider article, Suleyman said that generative AI would soon become pervasive. While he warns about potential risks posed by AI — especially in combination with synthetic biology — he also predicted that within five years everyone would have access to an AI personal assistant. He referred to this function as a personal chief-of-staff. In this vision, everybody will have access to an AI that knows you, is super smart, and understands your personal history.
The future is now
This forecast is consistent with a prediction I made last December. “Within several years, ChatGPT or a similar system, could become an app that resembles Samantha in the 2013 movie Her. ChatGPT already does some of what Samantha did: An AI that remembers prior conversations, develops insights based on those discussions, provides useful guidance and therapy and can do that simultaneously with thousands of users.”
Suleyman’s current company produces “Pi” — which stands for “personal intelligence” — a “personal AI designed to be supportive, smart, and there for you anytime.” It is further intended to be a coach, confidante, creative partner, sounding board and assistant. This sounds a lot like Samantha, and it has arrived faster than I expected. In fact, everything about gen AI appears to be happening fast.
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The market for these assistants is now getting very crowded, particularly as Chinese entrants are also starting to appear. Per a story in MIT Technology Review, “Ernie Bot” from Baidu reached 1 million users in the 19 hours following its recent public launch. Since then, at least four additional Chinese companies have made their large language model (LLM) chatbot products available.
Intelligence as a commodity
During the current Information Age, both information and computing have become commodities, items readily bought and sold and at low cost. About the AI wave, Suleyman adds: “It’s going to feel like having intelligence as a commodity — cheap, widely available, making everyone smarter and more productive.”
Vasant Dhar, a professor at the Stern School and co-director of the PhD program at the Center for Data Science at NYU, has come to the same conclusion: “Pre-trained [language] models have transformed AI from an application to a general-purpose technology. In the process, intelligence is becoming a commodity.” He adds that due to the emergent behaviors of these models, “the intelligence is configurable to any task requiring it. Like electricity.”
Just as electricity has pervaded so much of daily life — from home heating to lighting, powering manufacturing equipment and virtually all of our labor saving appliances — Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai said the impact from AI will be even more profound. How profound? As reported by The Guardian, Suleyman predicts that AI will discover miracle drugs, diagnose rare diseases, run warehouses, optimize traffic and design sustainable cities.
A change is coming
It is now widely accepted that AI will also be a game-changer for business. It is expected to increase efficiency and productivity, reduce costs and create new opportunities. Gen AI is already being used to develop personalized marketing campaigns, generate creative content and automate customer service tasks. It can help creators to iterate faster, from the brainstorming stage to actual development.
Gen AI is already an excellent editor for written content and is becoming a better writer too, as linguistics experts struggle to differentiate AI-generated content from human writing. It will soon be a better teacher, as well. According to Sal Khan, the founder of Khan Academy, the tech can provide a personalized tutor for every student.
It likely short sells the impact of AI to call this merely a wave. It is not; some have referred to this as a tsunami. Suleyman argues that AI “represents nothing less than a step change in human capability and human society, introducing both risks and innovations on an awesome scale.”
Emil Skandul, founder of the digital innovation firm Capitol Foundry, believes that “a tidal wave is about to crash into the global economy.” He adds this could boost living standards, improve productivity and accelerate economic opportunities, but adds that a rosy future is not guaranteed.
Certainly, the downsides are significant, ranging from deepfakes to the spread of misinformation on a global scale. For example, a new report claims that China is using AI-generated images to try to influence U.S. voters.
Tsunamis are huge and hugely disruptive
Even though gen AI is still nascent, its impact on jobs could be huge. Pichai said recently in a Wired interview: “I worry about whether AI displaces or augments the labor market. There will be areas where it will be a disruptive force.”
Accenture found that 40% of all working hours can be impacted by [generative AI] LLMs like GPT-4. Research from Goldman Sachs suggests that gen AI has the potential to automate 26% of work tasks in the arts, design, entertainment, media and sports sectors.
Venture firm Sequoia Capitol said that with the advent of this technology, “every industry that requires humans to create original work — from social media to gaming, advertising to architecture, coding to graphic design, product design to law, marketing to sales — is up for reinvention.”
McKinsey estimated that — consequently — at least 12 million Americans would change to another field of work by 2030. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) further claimed that more than a quarter of jobs in the OECD rely on skills that could be easily automated.
Much of the expected jobs impact has yet to be felt, but already the conflicts inherent in rapid change are becoming apparent. AI is a central issue in the current strikes by Hollywood actors and writers. These are signs of disruption in the face of this technology. Likely there will be many more.
How to cope with a tsunami
As a society, we have learned to cope with the Information Age for better or worse. Some decades on, the benefits and losses from this technological advance have become clearer, although the topic remains richly debated. Now we are faced with even bigger changes from the impacts of AI and the commoditization of intelligence.
On a recent episode of the Plain English podcast, health and science writer Brad Stulberg spoke about the various ways people deal with change. Stulberg is the author of Master of Change and he discussed “allostasis,” a concept from complex systems theory that could provide useful insight. The term applies to the ability of a system to dynamically stabilize in the face of disruption. This concept differs from homeostasis, where a system returns to its previous point as soon as possible following a disruption.
With allostasis, the system changes from order to disorder to reorder, essentially rebalancing at a new point, a new normal. It does not reset to the past, as would be true for homeostasis. One example of allostasis can be seen in our collective recovery in the aftermath of COVID—19. While work continues, the long-standing paradigm of going to the office for many has been replaced with hybrid work. Similarly, brick-and-mortar retail has continued to give way to online commerce.
For individual human beings, Stulberg says allostasis means remaining stable through change. To do this he argues that people need to develop “rugged flexibility,” to manage change most effectively. In other words, people need to learn how to be strong and hold on to what is most useful but also to bend and adapt to change by embracing what is new. We are used to doing one or the other, he argues, but now we need to learn how to do both.
When the wave hits
Although it remains possible that another AI winter could loom (where the tech fails to live up to the hype and falters), it is increasingly looking like an AI tsunami is inevitable. Thus, it is important to be prepared for change on both personal and societal levels. This means that we will need to be willing to learn new things, including how to use the latest gen AI tools — and to adapt to new ways of doing things.
We will all need to develop a rugged flexibility to successfully adapt. This will require openness to change and growth, even when there is substantial disruption. In the face of the AI tsunami, it’s not just about surviving, but learning to ride the wave and thrive in a transformed world.
Gary Grossman is a senior VP at Edelman and global lead of the Edelman AI Center of Excellence.
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