For the past few months, it feels like everybody has been going AI crazy. Futurists like myself have long been predicting that it will revolutionise our lives and, if you look closely, it’s plain to see it already is. Mostly, though, this has been happening ‘under the hood’ – quietly powering tools we use every day such as Google, Netflix and Uber in a way that is (by design) invisible to the end user.
ChatGPT and related tools and applications such as Bing and the soon-to-be-released Bard, on the other hand, are ‘in-your-face’ AI. Millions of us, who have now had the chance to see them in action, have been left in no doubt that this is something truly new, genuinely revolutionary and a little (perhaps a lot) scary.
News is moving quickly. As I’m writing this, Microsoft is thought to have scaled back and limited the ChatGPT functionalities it recently integrated into its Bing search engine. This comes as reports are surfacing of users who have found themselves being cheeked and chastised by the feisty chatbot, and others who have worked out clever ways of instructing it to adopt new, not entirely helpful personalities. Some researchers are even claiming that the machine learning-powered algorithms have been telling them that they are sentient and want to be alive.
It’s fair to say that we’ve all had a lot of fun and it’s thrown up some interesting ethical and philosophical debates. But is it genuinely set to be as revolutionary as it seems when it comes to changing the way we work? Or is it just a flash-in-the-pan that will be forgotten about when we eventually realise we’ve reached the limits of its abilities and it still isn’t quite good enough to let loose on really important tasks?
The limitations of ChatGPT and Natural Language Processing
Although it’s clearly very impressive technology, anyone who has used generative AI for a while will have bumped up against some of its limitations. The most glaring is probably the fact that it simply isn’t capable of new, original thought. ChatGPT (and other applications that will follow in the near future) draws all of the knowledge that goes into its output from its training data.
In very simplified terms, it constructs responses to questions and queries by analysing millions of words of text that have previously been written and applying probability to determine the best thing to say next. It’s a language model that understands the structure and context of sentences and therefore is capable of creating its own. What it can’t do, though, is come up with an idea that hasn’t been written before, or find an answer to a question that’s never been correctly answered before.
For most of the use cases that we might want to apply it to, this is probably fine. No one expects to use it to ask, for example, for the secret of generating perpetual energy, or a definitive answer to whether or not there’s a god. (Although it can certainly summarise a large amount of the corpus of existing human knowledge on both issues).
And, to be fair, we don’t need it to do that in order for it to help us with our jobs and day-to-day activities. Where it is likely to become increasingly useful is in automating routine elements of our work – things that, in theory, anybody can do if they have access to all of the knowledge that’s available on the internet and enough time.
This limitation is the main reason that natural language technology is not (yet) simply going to replace humans and make us redundant. There will, for the foreseeable future, be a need for humans to oversee and steer AI, providing the ‘big picture’ direction and the original thought that’s needed for any truly useful or valuable endeavour.
Reading, writing, research: what AI can actually do well now
This is why, when speculating about how this technology is likely to impact our working lives, it really makes sense to look at the particular abilities and skills that it can augment, rather than at specific jobs or professions that may or (more likely) may not be in danger of being automated out of existence.
Any such list, of course, has to start with writing. On the face of it, this is ChatGPT’s main function – to produce text. If you’re going to use it to write, though, it’s important to remember that it won’t generate anything new or original. Where it can be very helpful is with suggesting ideas. This could be how to structure an essay, article, blog post or social media post, or generating a list of the most important points that need to be covered. Just be wary that if your audience comes to you for specialist knowledge, expert opinion or just because they like your personality, then AI-generated content is likely to leave them cold.
It can also be a great tool for research. Anyone who wants to simplify the process of pulling together knowledge on whatever subject they are interested in will quickly appreciate that it can be more useful than a search engine – however, it’s important to note that its output can often include errors or omissions. Therefore, the ability to review and verify the information it churns out is still essential.
Others may find that its most effective use cases involve data analysis. It can interpret information, dissect text and numeric data, and even create charts. Combining this with its ability to generate code, it can be used for data analytics – spotting patterns and extracting insights from datasets.
Finally, it has tremendous potential to assist with planning and project management. Not sure about the best way to go about putting a project into action? Simply ask it for a step-by-step guide, including what tools and skills will be needed, what processes should be put in place, and how best to analyse and assess your results.
Am I in danger of redundancy?
If you happen to work in an area heavily dependent on one (or more) of these skills, you wouldn’t be alone in worrying if you’re likely to be replaced by a machine in the near future.
It’s my opinion, though, that no one should be immediately jumping ship and looking to move into something that will never be automated (if such a thing exists). Instead, it would be more rewarding to look at how you can use AI, and specifically natural language technology, to augment your skills in the areas covered above.
Writers should be using AI to become more thorough and informed in their writing. Programmers can become more productive and efficient at creating code. Data analysts can use AI to find new ways to look at their information and to process bigger datasets more quickly and efficiently.
But thinking beyond that, writers can now become data analysts, to create copy that’s more informed by facts and statistics. Data analysts can become writers, presenting their findings in a more engaging and complete manner. Programmers can become project managers, bringing together different skills to create more useful applications… and the list goes on.
So, yes, to answer the question I posed at the start of this article, I do truly believe that ChatGPT, Bard or some future iteration of language-based AI will change many things about the way we work on a day-to-day basis. It might not happen right away, but anyone who wants to be part of this future already has all the tools they need today to start taking steps in the right direction.
Whatever you do, don’t just ignore it and hope it’s going to go away, because like Pandora’s box – or the internet, or the mechanisation brought about by the industrial revolution – it isn’t going to go away.
Bernard Marr is a world-renowned futurist, influencer and thought leader in the fields of business and technology, a best-selling and award-winning author of 21 books as well as an adviser and coach to many of the world’s best-known organisations. His most recent books are Business Trends in Practice and Future Skills. This is the second of a series of monthly columns on the power of technology to transform modern businesses. Tune in next month for more unmissable advice.