It’s a question computer nerds and columnists struggle with a lot, says Derek Thompson in The Atlantic: how do you explain generative AI, such as ChatGPT, in a way that “illuminates the full potential of the technology”? In 1879, you might accurately have described Thomas Edison’s new incandescent light bulb as “a replacement for whale oil in lamps”. But that doesn’t “scratch the surface” of what the invention actually represented: on-demand power for not light, heat, and “any number of machines that 19th-century inventors couldn’t even imagine”.
One good analogy for AI is fire. When our ancestors first worked out how to harness the power of flames a million or so years ago, it allowed them to soften meat and vegetables – accelerating calorie consumption – and to scare off predators at night so that they could sleep for longer. That combination – more chow, more shut-eye – enabled us to grow bigger brains. It “quite literally expanded our minds”. Ultimately, though, making predictions about where AI will lead us is like being shown a picture of a “tadpole-like embryo” and asked to predict the species. Frog? Dog? Woolly mammoth? “You have no way of knowing.” And that, for me, is generative AI. “This thing is larval. And it might become anything.”