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Opinion: Bet against machine, you’ll lose

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At a family event recently, I was listening to someone I respect describe a podcast they had listened to on the topic of artificial intelligence. This content had clearly stirred in them a modicum of interest for AI. However, despite this family member’s new-found attitude of respect – or fear – of generative AI like ChatGPT, this person remained undaunted by the potential for such developments to threaten his industry.

The view that no AI, robot or any combination of the two could ever threaten your particular job is unsurprisingly common. Perhaps it’s due to Springfield’s service-based economy – with the primacy of human interaction it entails – that lends itself to such views. Perhaps it’s a purported lack of contact with the most cutting edge of such technology. Whatever the case, I find the hubris of this mindset disturbing.

Truthfully, there was a substantial span of time in the past five years where I had my own stubborn objections to AI encroachment in my field. I comforted myself with thoughts like “We’re creatives! Machines will never be able to be creative.” And, indeed, at one time it was assumed, even by many experts, that machines could not carry out complex creative tasks. Even after a computer defeated the world chess champion, many still thought of AI as a fancy calculator.

Then came AlphaGo.

Go is an ancient game far more popular in Asia than in the U.S. Players strategically place black and white pieces on a grid, aiming to control increasing amounts of territory. The game requires careful planning, foresight and creative thinking, especially at the highest levels of play. Conservative estimates of the number of possible arrangements of pieces on a Go board is approximately 10 to the 300th power. In fact, the number of possible Go games is so large it exceeds the estimated number of atoms in the observable universe, which is thought to be around 10 to the 80th power.

Despite the game’s complexity and creative demands, a deep-learning AI model bested the Go world champion in 2016. Many experts – mathematicians, physicists and other professions familiar with such abstract complexity – were forced to reflect on their own capabilities. This same type of technology, aka machine learning, powers today’s popular AI, such as ChatGPT. And popular is a big understatement. It took ChatGPT a mere two months to reach 100 million users, while it took Facebook around two years to achieve the same.

As unprecedented AI innovation sweeps the world, advances in so-called embodied AI, i.e. smart robots, already are radically altering the investment landscape of industries, from security to manufacturing and the military. In March, OpenAI, the creators of ChatGPT, invested $23.5 million in a company called 1X, which produces a bipedal humanoid robot named Neo. Google it. It’s more than a little unsettling. Similarly, in 2022, Tesla revealed its progress on a humanoid bipedal robot called Optimus, and the goal of that project, according to Elon Musk, is “a fundamental transformation for civilization as we know it.” For those in the construction industry, it won’t take you long to find videos online of Boston Dynamic’s robot Atlas nimbly parkouring its way around a construction site to fetch tools for forgetful humans.

All these technologies are rapidly penetrating our workplaces at a rate never seen before. Consider the technology we all use every day in our lives: the internet, GPS, cellphones, computers. I am 36 years old, and I even remember a time before all of these things. How about the age of the fax machine or when “atlas” meant a bound collection of paper maps for wayward travelers finding their way in the world? How much faster does information travel? How much easier is it to reach your clients, employees or kids?

There’s new survey data out from Pew Research Center that says, despite the frenzy, only 14% of Americans have actually used ChatGPT. I say, “So what”? The same institution reports that as early as 2000 over half of Americans used the internet. And not even half a lifetime later, our very lives depend on it. Considering the exponential growth of technology, can you imagine where we’ll be 20 years from now? To me, it seems like lack of imagination is precisely the problem.

Upton Sinclair, famed journalist and author of “The Jungle,” is often quoted saying, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” As a business owner, it’s my responsibility to steer my business in accordance with my best guess for what the world will look like next week, next month and next year. Whatever kind of leader you are – business owner, politician, educator, etc. – whether you like it or not, the flood is coming. It may not destroy civilization as we know it, but it could easily wipe your business off the map. It’s time to start building an ark.

Gabriel Cassady is co-owner of creative agency 2 Oddballs LLC. He can be reached at gabriel@2oddballs.com.

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