Transformer: Year One of the ChatGPT Era

“We’ve trained a model called ChatGPT which interacts in a conversational way. The dialogue format makes it possible for ChatGPT to answer followup questions, admit its mistakes, challenge incorrect premises, and reject inappropriate requests.”OpenAI Blog post “Introducing ChatGPT,” November 30, 2022

With these words, a transformation – from the time before to our time with the machines and systems we’ve chosen to call “Artificial Intelligence.”

ChatGPT, launched a year ago today as a “research preview” of our future, was our dreams and our nightmares made real: A computer we could talk to that seemed to talk back. A mirror and a marvel, at times indiscernible for magic, brimming with peril and potential.

Born from the transformational transformer, the Generative Pre-Trained Transformer outfitted with a chat interface would prove to be the tickler our imaginations needed after three years of pandemic trauma and looming economic uncertainty.

Can I get this thing to do my work, my homework, my chores, can I outsource my thinking, make it my therapy? Can it be my friend, my companion, my lover, my master?

The fenced path toward our carefully designed future suddenly opened into an infinite opportunity space with us standing at its edge, in awe, uncertain and excited and afraid to take our first steps, take any steps, to go at all because where do you go when you can go anywhere?

Listen carefully in those days to the whispers in the halls of power and you’d find those who thought it had come too soon; this tool that broke the academic confines of AI and put it in the hands of everyone. They had not yet the time to forge our path towards their vision. No fences were ready to keep us in line. Our future with AI was suddenly here, unannounced and unbounded, with imaginary grandmothers telling children’s stories of napalm and search engines catfishing journalists and a democratization and lowering of barriers to almost every field of exploration and creativity and discovery.

“Just a perfect day, you made me forget myself. I thought I was someone else, someone good.” – Lou Reed, Perfect Day, Transformer

One year in and we’ve learned things; about ChatGPT; about the people who built it; about creativity and generation; about people and machines; about work and life; and about us, ourselves, the humans in the mix.

One year ago my colleague asked me to help the world move forward with this. “Show the world how to get this right, how we can get it right together” he said, or something like it. And I said to him “I’m glad it’s us.” And I am. Glad it’s us. Not only in the narrow sense of him and me and our friends who we have the honour and privilege of working with, but in the broadest sense of all. I’m glad we, the global community who share this moment in time, get to explore this opportunity space together, unbounded by prior plans and pre-determined directions.

With AI we have an opportunity to think anew about the things that occupy our lives: How we work, how we play, how we create, how we commune. We get to think again, or maybe for the first time, about our time and how we use it.

We get to ask questions, about the role of technology and the role of humanity, about what we value and how value is measured, about who gets a say as we build our future with AI, and who decides who gets a say. We get to ask questions about power and privilege and access and limitations and what is good and right for us, our communities, and our world.

The decisions we make and the steps we take into the possibility space of AI determine where we go next and where those who come after us get to go in their futures. The time before is gone. This time is something new, and we get to define it.

This transformer in our midst, this up-ender of every process of creation and alteration and organization and interaction, is something so new, so unknown we don’t yet know what it is for. And the way we use it and its myriad of sibling cats well and truly out of the bag and on their way into the world today is the way we used the iPhone when it first arrived in our hands: As a phone with a flashlight app. The AIs brought forward and into our hands by ChatGPT are both tools for us to use and materials for us to work with. With new tools and materials in our practice we get to reflect on our old ways and find new ways – hopefully better ways – to do the old things and the new.

As I stand here, one year into the era of ChatGPT, what I see before me in the near future and several years from now is a period of ceaseless transformation. This year was the preparation; the slow organizing of exploratory teams, the uneven distribution of resources, the first furtive steps on untouched ground. What comes next is the journey into unexplored opportunity space. What we find there and how we use it will be up to us. And if we do it right, if we care for one another and help each other and build paths everyone can follow, it might – no – it will be amazing.

Hope is a catalyst. Build the future for everyone and for yourself.

By Morten Rand-Hendriksen

Morten Rand-Hendriksen is a Senior Staff Instructor at LinkedIn Learning (formerly specializing in AI, bleeding edge web technologies, and the intersection between technology and humanity. He also occasionally teaches at Emily Carr University of Art and Design. He is a popular conference and workshop speaker on all things tech ethics, AI, web technologies, and open source.