The hype around artificial intelligence has been building for years, and you could say it reached a crescendo with OpenAI’s recent release of ChatGPT (and now GPT-4). It only took two months for ChatGPT to reach 100 million users, making it the fastest-growing consumer application in history (it took Instagram two and a half years to gain the same user base, and TikTok nine months).
In Ian Beacraft’s opinion, we’re in an AI hype bubble, way above the top of the peak of inflated expectations on the Gartner Hype Cycle. But it may be justified, because the AI tools we’re seeing really do have the power to overhaul the way we work, learn, and create value.
Beacraft is the founder of the strategic foresight agency Signal & Cipher and co-owner of a production studio that designs virtual worlds. In a talk at South by Southwest last week, he shared his predictions of how AI will shape society in the years and decades to come.
A Revolution in Knowledge Work
Beacraft pointed out that with the Industrial Revolution we were able to take skills of human labor and amplify them far beyond what the human body is capable of. “Now we’re doing the same thing with knowledge work,” he said. “We’re able to do so much more, put so much more power behind it.” The Industrial Revolution mechanized skills, and today we’re digitizing skills. Digitized skills are programmable, composable, and upgradeable—and AI is taking it all to another level.
Say you want to write a novel in the style of a specific writer. You could prompt ChatGPT to do so, be it by the sentence, paragraph, or chapter, then tweak the language to your liking (whether that’s cheating or some form of plagiarism is another issue, and a pretty significant one); you’re programming the algorithm to extract years worth of study and knowledge—years that you don’t have to put in. Composable means you can stack skills on top of each other, and upgradeable means anytime anytime an AI gets an upgrade, so do you. “You didn’t have to go back to school for it, but all of a sudden you have new skills that came from the upgrade,” Beacraft said.
The Era of the Generalist
Due to these features, he believes AI is going to turn us all into creative generalists. Right now we’re told to specialize from an early age and build expertise in one area—but what happens once AI can quickly outpace us in any domain? Will it still make sense to become an expert in a single field?
“Those who have expertise and depth in several domains, and interest and passion and curiosity across a broad swathe—those are the people who are going to dominate the next era,” Beacraft said. “When you have an understanding of how something works, you can now produce for it. You don’t have to have expertise in all the different layers to make that happen. You can know how the general territory or field operate, then have machines abstract the rest of the skills.”
For example, a graphic designer who draws a comic book could use AI-powered design tools to turn that comic book into a 3D production, and he doesn’t have to know 3D modeling, camera movement, blending, or motion capture; AI now enables just one person to perform all of the virtual production elements. “This wouldn’t have been possible a couple years ago, and now—with some effort—it is,” Beacraft said. The video below was created entirely by one person using generative AI, including the imagery, sound, motion, and talk track.
Generative AI tools are also starting to learn how to use other tools themselves, and they’re only going to get better at it. ChatGPT, for example, isn’t very good at hard science, but it could pass those kinds of questions off to something like WolframAlpha and include the tool’s answer in its reply.
This is not only going to change our work, Beacraft said, it’s going to change our relationship with work. Right now, organizations expect incremental employee improvement in narrowly-defined roles. Job titles like designer, accountant, or project manager have key performance indicators that typically improve two to three percent per year. “But if employees only grow incrementally, how can organizations expect exponential growth?” Beacraft asked.
AI will take our traditional job roles and make them horizontal, giving us the ability to flex in any direction. As a result, we’ll have just-in-time skills and expertise on demand. “We will not lose our jobs, we will lose our job descriptions,” Beacraft said. “When organizations have teams of people working horizontally, all that new capability is net new, not incremental—and all of a sudden you have exponential growth.”
More Work, Not Less
That growth could do the opposite of what the predominant narrative tells us: that AI, robotics, and automation will take over various kinds of work and do away with our jobs. But AI could very well end up creating more work for us.
For example, teams of scientists using AI to help them run experiments more efficiently could increase the number of experiments they perform—but then they have more results, more data to analyze, and more work sifting through all this information to ultimately draw a conclusion or find what they’re looking for. But hey—AI is getting good at handling extra administrative work, too.
We may be in an AI hype bubble, but this technology is reaching more people than it ever has before. While there are certainly nefarious uses for generative AI—just look at all the students trying to turn in essays written by ChatGPT, or how deepfakes are becoming harder to pinpoint—there are as many or more productive uses that will impact society, the economy, and our lives in positive ways.
“It’s not just about data and information, it’s about how these AIs can help us shape the world,” Beacraft said. “It’s about how we project what we want to create onto the world around us.”