AI: Is it really going to take over?

ai: is it really going to take over?

AI. Artificial Intelligence. There’s a crazy amount of hype going around about AI which includes everything like Skynet, mass job losses and/or changing the world. Suffice to say, the hype around AI in 2023 has hit an all time high.

But, what is it really, what does it mean and is it really going to run the world? As much as I don’t want this to sound like a clickbait headline, the answer may shock you!

First, we need to start with the basics.

What is AI?

Artificial Intelligence is essentially defined as:

a simulation of basic human intelligence whereby the system can make decisions based on the information and then learn from decisions. 

Still doesn’t make sense right? 

Think back to something like the basics of riding a bike. From a human perspective, we start with training wheels until we work out balance. As our confidence builds, in a few months to a year we can ride without them.

If we had to write a software program to do the same thing, there’s an enormous amount of scenarios we need to write. We need to measure the basics such as speed to get inertia, if we drop below a certain speed we require more inputs to correct. If we ride on an uneven surface, that’s different to a bitumen one. If we ride on a slightly sloped surface, we need to compensate for it and adjust. Now put into context being on a road with others, we now need to be able to understand how cars move, what side of the road to be on and what happens at intersections and what to do if a car turns in front of us. Being Australian, we also have the added risk and complexity of being swooped by magpies (an Australian native bird which can be very territorial around nesting time).

As a programmer, if I have to write every scenario into a program on how to ride a bike this could be years and years of work, and the program would still only understand the exact scenarios I put in.

ai: is it really going to take over?

This is where AI fits in. Instead of writing every scenario line by line, we feed in the inputs (speed, ground surface, angle of the road, cars, magpies etc) and we allow the AI to build what’s called a “model” to understand how to deal with these scenarios. With a limited amount of information, the initial results won’t be perfect.

However, the AI advantage is that we can (quite efficiently) keep training this model based on more input data to generate better outcomes. It may take a toddler a year of training in the afternoon to outgrow the requirement for training wheels. As humans, we then need a few years of understanding traffic and cars before it’s safe for us to ride on the roads. AI? With the right data this could be a few hours of training to build the model. We can then put it in simulated environments to build more data and keep perfecting the model.

The key bit here is that a programmer didn’t have to write thousands of extra lines of code to keep improving the system.

Yeah OK, now I’m scared AI is taking over?!!

There’s no need to panic… yet. With the above scenario of riding a bike, what we’ve described is narrow AI. This is a system which can do a specific task and can learn to do that very well. And, this is a great thing. The more of the simple tasks which can be automated, the better. Especially in the early days of AI, this is a perfect fit for mundane tasks. For example, do you have to write a letter or email to staff in regards to cleaning the fridge out? This is a nice, simple one for AI.

One of the systems gaining the most hype recently (and for good reason) is ChatGPT. Produced by the OpenAI team, ChatGPT is a ​​generative pre-trained transformer AI system, which essentially means it can converse like a human where you can ask questions and even give feedback so it can adjust the answer.

For example, all I have to do ask for:

“Write an email to all staff, asking them to clean their items out of the fridge or it goes in the bin next Friday”

Using ChatGPT, this gives me:

Subject: Request for Fridge Cleanout

Dear All,

I hope this email finds you well. I am writing to request your immediate attention to the contents of the fridge. Over the past few weeks, the fridge has become cluttered with items that are past their expiration date or no longer needed.

In order to maintain a clean and organized workspace, I am asking that all staff remove any personal items from the fridge by next Friday, February 11th. Any items left in the fridge after this date will be discarded.

Please take a moment to check the contents of the fridge and make sure that you have removed all of your belongings. If you have any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to reach out to me.

Thank you for your cooperation and understanding.

Best regards,

[Your Name]

You can see that with limited input, the ChatGPT system is able to expand this out into a verbose letter and even added the date (as at the time of writing this article).

What’s even better is that we’re able to tune and adjust quickly. What if this is the 5th time staff have been told? Lets ask ChatGPT to “make the letter angry”:

Subject: Urgent Request for Fridge Cleanout

Dear All,

I am writing to you with great frustration and disappointment. The contents of the fridge have become completely unacceptable and it is clear that some staff members are not taking responsibility for their own items.

I am completely fed up with the cluttered and unsanitary state of the fridge. As a result, I am giving everyone a final warning to remove their belongings by next Friday, February 11th. Any items left in the fridge after this date will be promptly thrown in the trash without exception.

This is not a request. It is an ultimatum. I expect all staff to act like professionals and take responsibility for their own belongings. If you are unable to do so, then I suggest you reconsider your place in this company.

I am beyond disappointed in the behavior of some staff members and the lack of consideration for the common area. This is a workplace, not a storage unit. I expect all staff to maintain a clean and organized environment.

Please take this email seriously and take immediate action to clean out your items from the fridge.

Best regards,

[Your Name]

You can see that we can near instantly change the tone by giving simple feedback to ChatGPT to produce the result we want. There area already tools which can analyse your existing emails and writing to mimic your personal writing style to further personalise the output too.

Is my job at risk of being replaced by AI?

This quick answer is, “it depends”.

ai: is it really going to take over?

Anything AI driven currently requires the inputs and outputs of the role to be reasonably well defined and/or ideally a repeatable process.

As shown in our letter above, it’s quite possible that positions such as Executive Assistants (EA’s) will certainly be augmented by AI but could quite genuinely be replaced within the next decade. 

Already, we have AI driven phone assistants whereby it’s able to wait on hold and then negotiate booking appointments such as a restaurant by cross-referencing a calendar to find a suitable time.

However, it’s not just EA’s. Again, thinking back to a repeatable process with defined inputs and outputs… one possible role which could be replaced is a Systems Administrator (sysadmin). I know that’ll have many in IT shocked, but let’s look at the basic flow at times:

  1. An error occurs, generally a complex one which doesn’t make a lot of sense
  2. Sysadmins scour Google and sites like Stack Overflow to find an exact match for the error
  3. If an exact match doesn’t occur, ones similar are searched and a fix (hopefully) located.
  4. A fix is then applied, then the system monitored for adverse events and to confirm if it worked.

This is of course one of many tasks sysadmins perform, but it shows how the input (the error) is defined and the output (the fix) is also able to be measured so there’s the ability to either semi-automate or replace sysadmin’s performing the role.

Other roles where this can be neatly defined include things like bookkeepers, accountants, lawyers, market research / data analysts and more.

And, this is all still narrow AI.

The shift to general AI will change all of this and quite dramatically. Essentially, at a general AI level there’s no difference between what AI can do compared to an adult human. This means being able to give it unfamiliar tasks and instructions yet still being capable of completing the job. Once we hit this point, every job can be potentially be replaced by AI.

Alright, if I’m not immediately being replaced… How can I use AI?

Excellent question and an excellent approach. We shouldn’t fear AI. Change is going to occur so it’s best we embrace it instead of avoiding it. 

Coding

Right now, the current hotness in AI is clearly ChatGPT. And with good reason. It’s a helpful tool which is simple to use yet very effective. Our letter is only one very small part of what it can do. ChatGPT can also code! For example, I asked ChatGPT to write a small function to extract the domain name from a URL. Here’s what I asked:

“Write a Groovy script to generate a filename safe, base 64 encoded URL”

ai: is it really going to take over?

Not only did it write the code, but it explained how it worked. As a programmer, even if this wasn’t 100% correct it’s a very good start! Being able to get 90% of the answer within 10 seconds and having a system explain it is an awesome start.

Image Generation

Want some images? This is where Midjourney comes in! In fact, other than the screenshots all images in this article have been generated by Midjourney. Put simply, it’s a text to image generation system. You describe the image or scene you’re trying to create, and it will start generating images which it thinks are a fit.

For example, here’s a prompt which was to create the cover image:

describe how artificial intelligence works, infographics, blueprint, detailed, line art, computing, graphics 

From this prompt, we received 4 images which Midjourney had created:

ai: is it really going to take over?

I could keep iterating through and generating variances of images and if I find one close, I can get the system to vary it or simply just generate a higher quality version. The good thing here is, for relatively low cost you can provide plenty of creative input to generate unique and hopefully very on-topic artwork and images.

Web Development

For web development, there’s already some very neat demos with the latest GPT-4 was turning a very rough sketch into a full website.

ai: is it really going to take over?
Source: OpenAI GPT-4 Demo

A few years ago it’d be inconceivable to think this sort of system would be available. Now in 2023, it’s instead going to be a reality. Even if the result isn’t perfect, we’ll be able to prototype and code the basics of some ideas to get rapid feedback. 

Imagine being able to quickly draw a website while sitting with a client, then present a working prototype to them minutes later? Even better, imagine if the code is of sufficient quality that you can actually build upon and implement it within hours instead of days? This is where AI will be heading in the world of web development.

… And more

Quite simply, the rate of new tools and concepts being released is hard to comprehend. There’s up to 1,000 new AI based tools and programs per week being released. Everything which was too niche and too specialised will have a number of tools developed and released within the next 12 months. Here’s just a very, very small snippet of a few tools which may be of interest:

  • Jounce – AI copywriting and artwork for marketers
  • 10web – AI powered WordPress
  • HyperWrite – Personalised AI writing assistant
  • Synthesia – AI video generation
  • Superus – AI powered, automated mind mapping
  • Seomatic – AI driven SEO
  • Magical – AI powered meeting management
  • Lavender – AI powered sales coach
  • Channel – AI powered business analysis

Again, this is just a small fraction of the tools available which may help your business and assist with web development. By the time you read this article, there’s going to be thousands more .

Can AI be a villain too?

Any tool which can be used for good unfortunately also has some bad to it. There are a number of problems AI poses. It doesn’t mean we necessarily need to be afraid of it, but simply aware so we can plan around and look out for.

Firstly, in the context of narrow AI we have the issue of bias. AI doesn’t know ethics, if it’s fed millions of pages from books then it doesn’t necessarily understand views on things like racism have changed massively in the last 50 years. Some of the issues can also come from marginalised groups, whereby the content might only be very small and therefore not equally represented. It means these AI systems have to work around the issues and has certainly been one of the early issues.

ai: is it really going to take over?

Secondly, if you can get an AI system to write code for normal programs, then it can also write code for malicious programs. With ransomware being such a lucrative, criminal income then some of these tools (despite systems trying to block it) will be used to produce new and malicious code.

Move forward to general AI and we have a huge risk factor. A system making very complex and intelligent decisions. Anything we can train the system to do good, someone will have the capability to do the opposite.

The trouble here is, there’s nothing we can do to stop this. It’s like building stronger cars and expecting them not to be used in ram raids or as getaway cars. There’s simply always going to be an element of human society which will misuse and exploit for personal gain. 

Instead of fearing it however, we simply need to plan for it. We already (mostly!) secure our passwords and ensure systems remain locked down. There’s already scripts and hackers constantly scouring the internet to find systems to exploit, all that changes is how clever these systems could be. What may have been an optional lockdown will become a mandatory one to keep your system protected.

What’s next with AI?

ai: is it really going to take over?

As only the last two iterations of ChatGPT have shown, things are improving at an exponential rate. We haven’t seen a rise in technology change occur this quickly ever (even back to when computers were first invented), so there’s going to be lots of excitement and some definite bumps in the road.

My prediction is that things will change from “I wonder what AI could do here” to “how did we ever do without it”. Especially where AI can take away the ultra repetitive tasks, we’re going to see things advance and evolve rapidly and it definitely will disrupt a number of areas across different industries.

Even in the short term (within the next 12 months), if you’re not using ChatGPT or a similar system then you’re already falling behind. More and more programs are going to be integrating GPT style systems into their existing systems to give them an edge over the competition.

The important bit here isn’t to fear this change, but embrace and adapt. Government regulation will be very slow to adapt (as usual) and there’s going to be ethical questions about where AI should or shouldn’t be used but doing nothing simply isn’t viable. For example, can you trust an AI doctor over a human one?  

Unlike fictional things like Skynet however, we’ll remain in control so it’s all about the best use of the technology. As an avid technology enthusiast, I’m super excited to see how our AI future pans out!

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Tim Butler

With over 20 years experience in IT, I have worked with systems scaling to tens of thousands of simultaneous users. My current role involves providing highly available, high performance web and infrastructure solutions for small businesses through to government departments. NGINX Cookbook author.

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