Shortcuts / 23 February 2023


Over the past few months, ChatGPT has set the tech world alight with predictions that it will change the internet – and it’s raised big questions about artificial intelligence and how it will be used in our everyday lives. So in this episode of Squiz Shortcuts, we take a look at exactly where ChatGPT has come from, what the chatbot experience is, and some early problems that have played out very publicly for Microsoft and Google.

Alright, spell it out for me… What is ChatGPT?
Well, the ‘chat’ part is pretty self-explanatory, but spelling out the GPT acronym doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to understand because that stands for generative pre-trained transformer. But basically, ChatGPT is an AI chatbot – and a really good one at that.

What’s a chatbot?
Here’s an example. So you know when you do some online shopping and a little box might pop up saying “Hi, my name’s so-and-so, can I help you with anything today?” Well, that’s a chatbot and depending on how you answer, it might be able to help you with a simple inquiry.

Those have been around for a while…
Yeah, and they’ve been pretty basic in terms of what they can do. So until now, it’s fair to say there’s been nothing quite like ChatGPT.

How did it come about?
It was created by a not-for-profit company – now a foundation – called OpenAI. When it started out it was a small San Francisco outfit led by a 37yo named Sam Altman, and a big cast of tech stars pulled together US$1 billion to get the company started.

Anyone I would have heard of?
Elon Musk for one. He was behind OpenAI in the early days and says he put the ‘Open’ in the name OpenAI because he wanted its code to be open source – that means anyone can inspect, modify, and enhance it. That was back in 2015.

But he’s no longer involved?
No, he resigned from the company’s board in 2018, saying there could be a potential future conflict of interest given his role as CEO of Tesla. But he remained on as an investor.

Anyone else to know?
Reid Hoffman – the co-founder of LinkedIn – is another big name who’s involved with OpenAI, as well as influential tech startup investor Jessica Livingston, and Peter Thiel, who was a co-founder of PayPal and one of the first investors in Facebook. Amazon Web Services and India’s Infosys also put their finger in the OpenAI pie and Microsoft came on board with a $1 billion investment in 2019.

How was that move received?
Well, Musk and others started throwing some stones… The Twitter boss recently summarised his position, saying OpenAI was set up “to serve as a counterweight to Google, but now it has become a closed source, maximum-profit company effectively controlled by Microsoft”. And earlier this year, Microsoft made a 2nd investment reported to be $10 billion.

And the rest is history… So what makes ChatGPT so special?
It’s probably the first chatbot that can actually have a conversation like a human or respond to really really complex questions and requests in a conversational way or any style the user asks for. And its creators are doing this by drawing on masses of data and knowledge.

It’s pretty mind-blowing stuff…
It sure is. One example that we’ve seen doing the rounds is that you can ask ChatGPT to “write a 1,000-word essay on why Australia is a middle power” and even direct it to “use peer-reviewed journal articles as references” and it can spit you out a piece of work that would absolutely get you a pass in an assignment. How universities and schools will deal with that when it comes to assessment time is something that’s been talked about a bit.

Any other interesting examples?
One that got quite a few headlines is when a fan asked ChatGPT to replicate Nick Cave’s songwriting. It turned out a piece full of dark, biblical references: “I am the sinner, I am the saint / I am the darkness, I am the light”.

That’s pretty spot on…
It’s quite uncanny, but the muso absolutely hated it, saying it was a “grotesque mockery of what it was to be human”.

But it’s not going away…
No, and over the last couple of weeks, a whole new frontier opened up when Microsoft’s search engine Bing integrated with ChatGPT. Billions of people rely on internet search engines every day, so the move was notable for a few reasons, mostly because it was bringing the application to life in a very practical way.

It’s also brought Bing back to life…
Yeah, so obviously Google has long been the biggest company in the search engine market – that’s because of the revenue it rakes in from companies for certain search results to be boosted up the list over others. But now ChatGPT and products like it have changed everything.

So ChatGPT’s integration with Bing is about more than writing uni essays?
That’s right. So the idea is that you can literally ‘chat’ with it and it will deliver you an answer after it has scraped the web.

Any examples?
So if you typed in “What salad should I serve with steak and pinot noir?”, it’ll give you one suggestion instead of multiple ones like a regular search engine. Some questions are more tricky – for example, “Was Donald Trump robbed of the 2020 presidential election?” The critics say that’s a much more fraught space to navigate.

What are those in the know saying about ChatGPT?
Well, there have been a number of big inventions that have shaken up the technology world, like the radio, TV, the internet, and the smartphone. ChatGPT is something that’s now being talked about in these terms.

What are the critics saying?
Well, a lot of issues have been raised after Bing and other competitors pushed quickly into the AI space… That played out for New York Times journo Kevin Roose last week – he had a 2-hour conversation with Bing’s chatbot, and it’s fair to say it went off the rails.

In what way?
So the chatbot said it would like to be human, had the desire to be destructive, and was in love with Kevin. Now, there’s a lot of background to why the conversation went there – particularly that Roose was asking the chatbot at length about its shadow self – that is what some psychologists call the deep dark version of ourselves. And after a while, it came out with that weirder stuff.

It still sounds pretty deep…
The important thing to note is that the chatbot isn’t sentient – meaning it can’t have real emotions and feelings. It’s a language prediction system and the experts say that on some occasions if you ask it certain sorts of questions, it can deliver those kinds of responses. That’s why ChatGPT’s creator Sam Altman tweeted recently that “it’s a mistake to be relying on it for anything important right now”.

So the technology ain’t perfect…
Not yet, and it’s a lesson Google learned the hard way a couple of weeks ago – it’s working on a competitor to ChatGPT and Bing called Bard. When Microsoft was getting all the glory a couple of weeks ago, it pulled journos together to showcase its new toy, and it made a pretty massive mistake.

How so?
It premiered an ad for Bard which included the chatbot being asked a question about the James Webb Space telescope. Bard said it had taken the first pictures of exoplanets – it actually hadn’t…

Yeah, it was a massive blow to the credibility of Google’s product and the share price of its parent company Alphabet dived by 8%, which is about $144 billion. So that wasn’t great, but it highlighted that there was more work to do to get it right.

But will the technology ever become reliable?
It’s a question many are asking, particularly because these technologies rely on the internet for information. It’s not for nothing that over the last few years, security agencies around the world have been talking about their concerns about the proliferation of misinformation and disinformation.

So all that aside, where can I sign up?
Well, you can’t yet – Google’s Bard hasn’t launched, and there’s no date on that. Bing’s chatbot is currently being tested by just a million users, but Microsoft says they will scale the preview to millions more in the coming weeks.

And what about ChatGPT?
It’s free to use, but you have to have an account to use it. There’s also a paid version too at US$20/month that’s quicker and will get you in when it’s at capacity.

It feels like we’ve just scratched the surface of the topic…
Indeed, and it’s definitely a topic we’ll be talking about it a lot more in the weeks and months ahead.

Squiz recommends:

Microsoft’s Bing search engine

Bing AI chatbot’s 2-hour conversation with a New York Times columnist

‘The Online Search Wars Got Scary. Fast.’ – NYT’s The Daily podcast

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