No human celebrating a first birthday is as verbose, knowledgeable, or prone to fabrication as ChatGPT, which is blowing out its first candle as I type these words. Of course, OpenAI’s game-changing large language model was precocious at birth, tumbling into civilization’s ongoing conversation like an uninvited guest busting into a dinner party and instantly commanding the room. The chatbot astonished everyone who prompted it with fully realized, if not always completely factual, responses to almost any possible query. Suddenly, the world had access to a Magic 8 Ball with a PhD in every discipline. In almost no time, 100 million people became regular users, delighted and terrified to realize that humans had suddenly lost their monopoly on discourse.
The response shocked ChatGPT’s creators at the AI startup OpenAI as much as anyone. When I was interviewing people at the company for WIRED’s October cover feature this year, virtually everyone admitted to wildly underestimating the chatbot’s impact. From their view inside the AI bubble, the truly big reveal was expected to be the just-completed text-generation model GPT-4. ChatGPT used a less powerful version, 3.5, and was seen as merely an interesting experiment in packaging the technology into an easier-to-use interface. This week Aliisa Rosenthal, the company’s head of sales, tweeted out striking evidence of the degree to which OpenAI’s leaders didn’t understand what they were about to unleash on the world. “A year ago tonight I got a Slack letting me know we were silently launching a ‘low key research preview’ in the morning and that it shouldn’t impact the sales team,” she wrote. Ha! Another OpenAI employee posted that people were taking bets on how many users would access it. 20K? 80K? 250K? Try the fastest-growing user base in history.
In my first Plaintext column of 2023, I made the observation (too obvious to be a prediction) that ChatGPT would own the new year. I said that it would kick off a wet, hot AI summer, dispelling whatever chill lingered from an extended AI winter. To be sure, it was a triumph not solely of science but of perception as well. Artificial intelligence had been a thing for almost 70 years already, at first taking baby steps in limited domains. Researchers built robots that stacked blocks. An early chatbot called Eliza beguiled people into sharing their personal lives using the simple trick of parroting their words back to them as questions. But as the millennium approached, AI became more adept and built momentum. A computer clobbered the greatest human chess champion. Amazon warehouses became dominated by automatic package processors. Daring Tesla owners snoozed while their cars drove them home. A computer program managed a feat that might have taken humans centuries to accomplish: solving the scientific mysteries of protein folding. But none of those advances packed the visceral wallop of asking ChatGPT to, say, compare the knives of the Roman Empire to those of medieval France. And then asking if the shockingly detailed bullet-pointed response could be recast in the way that historian Barbara Tuchman might do it, and getting an essay good enough to prove that homework will never be the same.
Millions of people tried to figure out how to use this tool to improve their work. Many more simply played with it in wonder. I can’t count the number of times where journalists asked ChatGPT itself for comment on something and dutifully reported its response. Beyond bolstering word count, it’s hard to say what they were trying to prove. Maybe one day human content will be the novelty.
ChatGPT also changed the tech world. Microsoft’s $1 billion gamble on OpenAI in 2019 turned out to have been a masterstroke. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, with early access to OpenAI’s advances, quickly integrated the technology behind ChatGPT into its Bing search engine and pledged billions more of investment to its maker. This triggered an AI arms race. Google, which earlier in November 2022 had publicly bragged that it was going slow on releasing its LLMs, went into a frantic “Code Red” to push out its own search-based bot. Hundred of AI startups launched, and contenders like Anthropic and Inflection raised hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars. But no company benefited more than Nvidia, which built the chips that powered large language models. ChatGPT had scrambled tech’s balance of power.
Maybe most significantly, ChapGPT was a shrieking wake-up call that a technology with impact at least on the scale of the internet was about to change our lives. Governments in the US, Europe, and even China had been nervously monitoring AI’s rise for years; when Barack Obama guest-hosted an issue of WIRED in 2016, he was eager to talk about the technology. Even the Trump White House released an executive order. All of that was mostly talk. But after ChatGPT appeared, even politicians realized that scientific revolutions don’t care much about bluster, and that this was a revolution of the first order. In the last year, AI regulation rose to the top of the stack of must-deal-with issues for Congress and the White House. Joe Biden’s own, expansive executive order seemed to reflect the sudden urgency, though it’s far from clear that it will change the course of events.