Saturday, June 03, 2023

Generative AI - my sense of wonder and hope

I feel an absolute sense of wonder at Generative AI. It just seems so surprising that something so simple does things so extraordinary. Letting a mathematical model ‘learn’ by feeding it data, then seeing it create text, images, audio and video is almost sinfully magical. We have seen nothing like this in the history of our species. We are no longer search and retrieving knowledge, we are having a dialogue with knowledge, with something that has its roots in the collaborative hive mind, that tirelessly and politely communicates with us in many voice we choose and creates every new word and image.

I’ve waited my whole life for this. All my adult life has been spent in using technology to do things that humans do, like teach, heal, dispense advice, manage and so on.  For years, going back literally 45 years to Dartmouth College where I first came across AI (it was the home of the modern era of AI), coming back and buying a home computer, my attempts at an intelligent tutor in the late 90s, then putting all my energies into companies and ideas that were heading in this direction since 2005; Learning Pool, then CogBooks, WildFire. I wrote a book in 2020 that said it was coming – soon. And it did – big time.


This is not a clickbait fad, it is a profound moment in time, a moment that changes the trajectory of our species. For the first time in my life I see on the horizon, a Universal teacher and Universal doctor, and other useful advisors htat will inform, educated, manage and heal us. In particular, it will dramatically reduce the cost of education and healthcare.  


It is clear that once AI embodies great pedagogy, learning science and teaching practice, the Universal Teacher that can teach in any subject at any level, at any time anywhere in any language. Why? Because it can learn these things. What marks this technology apart from all others is its ability to learn and that’s why it will eventually transcend our current model. We will all learn faster because it will learn to teach us. Teaching is a means to an end – that end is learning. If that end can be done in a way that is much cheaper and doesn’t condemn many to failure or keep people trapped and excluded from the world in expensive institutions in long-winded courses, for up to twenty years, then why not?


It is also clear that the Universal Doctor is also on the Horizon. As soon as current misdiagnosis rates are undercut by AI, this will happen. It will happen because lives will be saved. It will also learn to do investigative work on available data, blood tests and scans. On top of this we have seen with Alphafold how advances in research and medicines is already being accelerated by AI. Medical practice is a means to an end the health of us all and as patients when we get ill. If that can be achieved at hugely decreased costs, with better diagnosis, investigation and treatment, less suffering, then bring it on.


These two benefits alone are why we must calm down on the eschatological doomsaying. It is easy in the comfort of the developed world to want these two things to slow down but of you are in a classroom with no roof in a class of 50 plus and a teacher with little training and a paltry salary, you may thing differently. And of you live in a country where there’s one doctor for up to 10,000 people you may see this as a change to not just improve but save your life.


There is no end of people not knowing how to live their own lives, telling everyone else how to live theirs... the moralisers, ethicists, activists. They would rather impose their will on others than realise the benefits of AI. It was always thus, with printing, radio, television, rock ‘n roll, internet, Wikipedia, smartphones, videogames, social media, bioengineering, GM crops, 5G now AI. The usual suspects want to own knowledge and communications; academe, mainstream media, politicians, professional institutions. They have a lot to lose but the the rest of us have a lot to gain with cheaper more productive systems. In truth it is no longer in their grasp. They’d ban it in the blink of an eye if it wasn’t that damn useful.

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