Coding matters: Turning point times

Turning points: image of a human hand touching a robotic hand

I don't know if it is a curse or a blessing, but we definitely live in interesting times. More than that: we are living through turning points in history.

Sometimes we live through changes that we will only later recognise as turning points. The soldiers who fought in the turning point battles of World War II weren't aware of it at the time. They were too busy trying not to die.

Sometimes we know that what we are experiencing is a turning point in history. The Covid pandemic is an obvious example. Three years and one week ago we went into lockdown in South Africa. We didn't know what would change and how much it would change, but we knew it was a critical event.

Our right-now technology turning point

In the past years we've heard a lot about the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). But there isn't a single event or date that marks this. It is a pattern of change brought about by improvements in technology. Klaus Schwab, the World Economic Forum founder, gave it the name "4IR". If the term hadn't become popular, we might not be aware that we are living through an industrial revolution.

But right now we know that we are experiencing a tech turning point. And that turning point is ChatGPT and its equivalents.

I wrote about ChatGPT at the beginning of February. GPT-4 was released on 14 March, and is more accurate and adaptive. With the right skill and knowledge, it can already make a big difference to the way we work. It's already created a new kind of job: a prompt engineer.

Science fiction predictions

The imaginary worlds of science fiction sometimes become real. Many modern inventions, like organ transplants, that were first anticipated in fiction.

AI is no exception. It's been part of science fiction for years. According to Wikipedia, the 1872 novel Erewhon by Samuel Butler was the first story about intelligent machines. I haven't read it, although its available for free at Project Gutenberg.

In 1964 Arthur C Clarke predicted machines that "will completely outthink their makers". You can see a short clip of this prediction on Youtube. The longer clip includes his accurate prediction of current communications and remote working.

For better or worse?

Last week David Rotman published a thought-provoking article in MIT Technology Review. Its title and subtitle:

ChatGPT is about to revolutionize the economy. We need to decide what that looks like.

New large language models will transform many jobs. Whether they will lead to widespread prosperity or not is up to us.

Read the article. Technology can improve life for everyone, or it can create an even bigger gap between the haves and the have-nots. Experts are calling for the need to carefull steer these tech advances to benefit everyone. Will we pay attention to these voices? Major events in history have been both good and bad.

A last silly thought

AI characters in science fiction have ranged from murderous to altruistic.

E.M. Foner wrote a series of easy-to-read, feel-good stories called the Earthworld series. They are set in an optimistic future world with alien species and sentient AI. AI reached out to humans out of compassion, to save us from our destructive behaviour.

If we take the wrong road now, I hope there are some compassionate aliens out there. And if AI takes over control of the world, I hope it will fix Eskom.

Agree or disagree, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic.

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