It’s strange to think that ChatGPT almost didn’t happen. Before its launch in November 2022, Ilya Sutskever, cofounder and chief scientist at OpenAI, wasn’t impressed by its accuracy. Others in the company worried it wasn’t much of an advance. Under the hood, ChatGPT was more remix than revolution. It was driven by GPT-3.5, a large language model that OpenAI had developed several months earlier. But the chatbot rolled a handful of engaging tweaks—in particular, responses that were more conversational and more on point—into one accessible package. “It was capable and convenient,” says Sutskever. “It was the first time AI progress became visible to people outside of AI.”
The hype kicked off by ChatGPT hasn’t yet run its course. “AI is the only game in town,” says Sutskever. “It’s the biggest thing in tech, and tech is the biggest thing in the economy. And I think that we will continue to be surprised by what AI can do.”
But now that we’ve seen what AI can do, maybe the immediate question is what it’s for. OpenAI built this technology without a real use in mind. Here’s a thing, the researchers seemed to say when they released ChatGPT. Do what you want with it. Everyone has been scrambling to figure out what that is since.
“I find ChatGPT useful,” says Sutskever. “I use it quite regularly for all kinds of random things.” He says he uses it to look up certain words, or to help him express himself more clearly. Sometimes he uses it to look up facts (even though it’s not always factual). Other people at OpenAI use it for vacation planning (“What are the top three diving spots in the world?”) or coding tips or IT support.
Useful, but not game-changing. Most of those examples can be done with existing tools, like search. Meanwhile, staff inside Google are said to be having doubts about the usefulness of the company’s own chatbot, Bard (now powered by Google’s GPT-4 rival, Gemini, launched last month). “The biggest challenge I’m still thinking of: what are LLMs truly useful for, in terms of helpfulness?” Cathy Pearl, a user experience lead for Bard, wrote on Discord in August, according to Bloomberg. “Like really making a difference. TBD!”
Without a killer app, the “wow” effect ebbs away. Stats from the investment firm Sequoia Capital show that despite viral launches, AI apps like ChatGPT, Character.ai, and Lensa, which lets users create stylized (and sexist) avatars of themselves, lose users faster than existing popular services like YouTube and Instagram and TikTok.
“The laws of consumer tech still apply,” says Benaich. “There will be a lot of experimentation, a lot of things dead in the water after a couple of months of hype.”
Of course, the early days of the internet were also littered with false starts. Before it changed the world, the dot-com boom ended in bust. There’s always the chance that today’s generative AI will fizzle out and be eclipsed by the next big thing to come along.
Whatever happens, now that AI is fully in the mainstream, niche concerns have become everyone’s problem. As Schaefer says, “We’re going to be forced to grapple with these issues in ways that we haven’t before.”