We have come full circle, by David Leangen
We have come full circle, by David Leangen

A few weeks ago, I threw together the silly image above. Little did I know that Elon Musk and other industry leaders would write an open letter admitting exactly the same thing.

From the user's perspective, thinking about a system as a black box is not only acceptable, it is necessary.

From the creator's perspective, releasing into the wild a technology that is little understood is, as far as I can tell, unprecedented.

Technology as Magic

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

This is a famous quote from the late Carl Sagan. If we define "technology" as "the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes," then clearly "technology" is something created by people, not something found in nature. I think it would be fair to assume that Sagan had the layperson, or the user of technology in mind, not its creator.

When I first tried out ChatGPT, it seemed like magic to me. Even as I continue to dive deep and learn more about how it works, it still feels like magic to me. My guess is that most users feel exactly the same way.

As users of the technology, that does not stop us from making good use of it. I make good use of my iPhone and my Toyota, even though I don't know any of the millions of details that went into their designs. As a software developer, more and more specialities are popping up, and I have to admit that it has become impossible to know the details of every area of specialization. For example, I have been interested in blockchain for some time, but I have not yet had the luxury of time to dig into the details.

As a user, it is impossible to understand the innards of most technologies, but that should not stop me from using it. The only way to cope is to have a simple, abstract understanding about what it does, and marvel at its magic.

That is how technology has always worked.

Generative AI as Magic

Generative AI as a sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

We write simple English language prompts to instruct it as to what we want, and we get natural language English or advanced images back. What happens in between is... magic.

But This Time, it's Different

As stated in the article, recent AI systems are "ever-larger unpredictable black-box models with emergent capabilities."

Translation: the creators of these AI system don't understand what they have created. In other words, not only is generative AI magic to its users, it is also magic to its creators. They have let the genie out of the bottle without fully understanding the consequences.

This is astonishing!