Pax Machina or: What is Artificial Intelligence and Where is it Taking Us

We’re entering a new era, one where machines will reign.

And it’s happening faster than most can comprehend.

I’ve been writing this piece for weeks and the ever-changing landscape has caused me to revise it every other day. The change is happening so fast that it’s impossible to keep up. Every article published tends to focus on the latest developments, assuming readers have a basic understanding. Though, at least from what I gather from talking to people, most don’t.

That’s why I wrote this. To simplify, the best I can, what AI is, where it’s going, and how it will be the greatest force overlaying humanity’s existence in the coming years.

Artificial intelligence has been an idea for decades. And it’s been part of our lives for longer than most realize. It’s functioned behind the scenes, sometimes obviously, other times not so much. Often little more than background noise. Think of the advertisements that coincidentally appear for the shoes you talked to your friend about yesterday. The mysterious algorithms that power search engines. Autocorrect.

But AI has gone mainstream. To call the advancements of recent months staggering is an understatement. AI is advancing faster than even the smartest minds can follow.

As tech investor David Sacks put it: “We are on a bullet train to something, and we don’t know exactly what it is.”

In the coming months, we’ll witness a technological progression like none other in history. Over the next few years, we’ll experience a life only imagined in science fiction.

The question is whether it will be an age of great peace, or something else.

But What Exactly is Artificial Intelligence?

First of all, there are several categories of AI. Though to keep it simple, I’ll focus on the two most significant in the current ecosystem: artificial narrow intelligence (ANI) and artificial general intelligence (AGI).

All the mainstream AIs we use today are ANIs. Think Amazon or Netflix suggestions, chatbots, facial recognition and Siri.

In essence, ANI is a computer program that takes in vast quantities of information and stores it within its memory. When required to perform a function, like making a picture or answering a question, it takes what it’s learned and generates a result.

In many ways, it does exactly what we do — but faster.

Humans take in information and perform tasks based on our learned knowledge.

This is an oversimplification, of course. Humans have things like emotion and instinct that help us in our decision-making. But calling AI artificial isn’t entirely accurate — the intelligence is real. A better term would be inorganic intelligence — or, even more accurately: synthetic intelligence.

The other form of AI that will shape our future is artificial general intelligence. AGI will take what we have now to another level – though we’re not there yet. Rather than simply spitting out reorganized data, AGI will have the ability to think for itself and be able to perform any cognitive task that a human can — likely far better.

The Rise

I first heard about GPT3 a few years ago. Its potential fascinated me, but was still something far removed from the mainstream. Only those with industry connections could play with the technology. In the summer of 2022, we started to see a shift.

With image prompting tools like Stable Diffusion, Dall-E and MidJourney, generative art brought AI to the masses. Describe what you want to see and an image materializes before your eyes — it’s fascinating stuff.

Still in the hands of early adopters, with clever avatars and profile pictures, it stayed on the fringes. As mind-blowing as the tech was in those early months, it received little media coverage. It wasn’t until the public release of OpenAI’s ChatGPT in late 2022 that people started to talk.

ChatGPT is essentially a highly advanced chatbot. They call it a generative pre-trained transformer (GPT), which is a large language model that’s read huge swaths of the internet. It holds the collective knowledge of humanity — the good, the bad and the misleading.

It knows far more than any individual human could ever learn and can answer complicated questions or write detailed essays in seconds. It can write complex code in multiple programming languages and explain difficult-to-understand concepts to a five-year-old.

Yet this is already old news.

The Current State

In the short time since AI went mainstream in early 2023, everything has changed. And the rate things are changing is the reason I’ve had such difficulty writing this article.

First of all, it’s gotten fast. MidJourney processing has increased to incredible levels. In October 2022, an image might take 30-60 seconds to render. Now, it takes as little as 10. And while this might not seem impressive at face value, consider that the number of active users — and thus the draw on the system — has gone up exponentially.

In late January, Microsoft invested $10 billion into OpenAI and integrated ChatGPT into its Bing search engine. This turned the tables in the search engine wars and for the first time in two decades, Google faced a real threat.

Open-sourced AIs are appearing all the time, with models trained on specific subjects such as commerce, healthcare, education and entertainment.

Every major company in the world right now is on the AI train, integrating the tech into their software and business models. Those holding back will be left behind.

This progress is wild, exciting, fascinating and somewhat scary. And ultimately has many asking: Will AI make us obsolete?

The Fear

Countless jobs will disappear. In the same way that automation decimated assembly line workers over the last few decades, millions of human tasks will become obsolete. Automation itself will evolve into something we could only imagine a few years ago.

Self-checkout kiosks, for example, will no longer be simple calculators that process transactions. They’ll have the ability to not only identify non-barcoded items but also answer questions and even converse with customers — something we shouldn’t dismiss.

While many people are still apprehensive about electric vehicles, self-driving technology is nearly perfected. The electric car debate is old news. Driverless cars are coming — sooner than you think. Now consider what driverless cars will do to the millions of people who drive for a living.

Until recently, automation has generally been feared by hands-on workers, mainly the blue-collar workforce. AI brings a threat to the rest.

Professionals, such as doctors and lawyers, should pay attention. AI can write contracts and possibly even deliberate in court. It can diagnose medical symptoms and recommend treatments in seconds.

As for positions like assistants, receptionists and call centre workers, AI is already doing these jobs. I use ChatGPT as my personal assistant on a daily basis.

Artists and creatives were always considered safe — or so we thought. With image tools capable of generating near-photorealistic images, AI poses a serious threat to both photographers and graphic designers alike. The same goes for writers, musicians, comedians and radio hosts.

Photorealistic AI-Generated image of a woman standing in front of the Eiffel Tower
AI-Generated Photo of a Woman at the Eiffel Tower

The handful of trade-related jobs that won’t be directly affected, such as electricians and plumbers, feel safe. Many are confident that AI and automation can’t touch them. This may be true in the physical sense. But what will happen to their wages when the job market is flooded by waves of people eagerly seeking new careers?

Job Loss Isn’t the Real Concern

Job losses on a global scale, while it’s what most people point to, aren’t the main concern. Nor is the fear that AI will become self-aware and enslave humanity — something Marc Andreesen, of A16Z, deconstructs in this epic 7000-word banger published in early June.

The threat that AI may pose will more likely come from us. To be specific, those among us who might use it as a tool to cause harm.

To avoid planting seeds in minds that may come across this article, I’ve omitted details of these possible threats. Suffice it to say, tools currently exist and will exist that hackers and amateurs alike might use to cause mass destruction.

These concerns include everything from global bank hacks to cyber attacks on key infrastructure like power grids, air travel and rail systems. AI could theoretically be used to create the blueprints for extinction-level chemical and biological weapons.

Where It’s Going

Some of what I’ve mentioned will happen. Much of it won’t.

Our future with AI, as blurry as it is, will not be all bad.

With any powerful technology comes risk, though I’m confident the positives will outweigh any downsides.

The job loss scenario mentioned earlier will likely displace millions of workers. But it won’t be the destructive force so many point to, resulting in mass global unemployment. Historically speaking, when we apply new technology to an industry it ultimately leads to more jobs and higher wages. There will be periods of adjusting, sure, some moving around and a need to learn new skills as things progress. But in the long run, AI will create more jobs than it will take.

We’ve already been witness to an entirely new form of art. From pictures to music and storytelling, AI is revolutionizing the creative realm. While some artists feel threatened, others are embracing the tech and using it as a tool to expand their abilities.

AI will advance education in ways we can’t yet imagine. For my own entertainment, I’ve been “learning” about complex subjects in ways that are both entertaining and easy to digest.

I’ve had Anthony Bourdain explain general relativity, and quantum computing hilariously broken down by Hunter S Thompson.

Trivial things aside, putting AI to work in other realms will change the world.

Self-driving cars will maximize our ability to read, work, converse, and learn. Think about how much time you spend in your car in a given week. Imagine doing something productive or entertaining during that time.

It has the potential to decide on certain legal issues on an unbiased level — negating factors like race, religion, gender, or status.

It could potentially act as a mediator in international treaty negotiations, finding what works best in each party’s interest.

AI will be used to diagnose illness sooner and more accurately. It will be used to create new drugs on an exponentially faster scale — possibly eradicating some diseases in the process. AI-powered robotics will increase the effectiveness and speed of surgeries while minimizing both cost and invasiveness.

Imagine a wearable or nano-implant that can not only detect illness before symptoms arise but also suggest possible steps to avoid its progression. I’d be surprised if this isn’t the norm in under 5 years — and that’s a conservative estimate.

Its ability to perform complex calculations at incredible speeds will be used in everything from engineering, astrophysics and space travel, to tackling climate change and social issues on a global scale.

Will Regulation Help or Harm

Ultimately, AI is one of the greatest tools humanity ever produced — certainly the most advanced. It will be used to increase speed and productivity across the board. And while automation will make many jobs obsolete for humans, it will generate countless new positions — ones we can’t yet fathom.

Of course, with any powerful new tool, it has the potential to be used nefariously. The great regulation debate is a difficult one. The field is so new and changing so rapidly that nobody knows what steps to take.

On one hand, restrictions may help in preventing bad actors from using it maliciously. Then again, this is arguably the greatest arms race in history, one that must end in stalemate. Throttling progress — even with good intentions — may ultimately be a grave mistake. Even if we regulate and slow things down, will others do the same?

Falling behind is not an option — for anyone.

Pax Machina

Historically, eras of relative peace and global stability are named for the dominant empire of the time. Pax Romana was the time of the Roman Empire. At the height of the British Empire, we saw Pax Britannica. Pax Americana is what we’ve seen since the end of the Second World War.

I am a strong advocate for technological progress and am excited about what AI will bring. But for myself and countless others embracing AI, it isn’t blind acceptance.

The concerns I’ve mentioned are real. We need to acknowledge them and prepare ourselves the best we can.

That said, this progress is inevitable. The genie is out. The world is changing in unimaginable ways.

We must embrace and adapt, or risk being left behind.

The next great era will not be that of an empire but of an intelligence of humanity’s creation.

Recommended for a Deeper Dive:

Listen/Watch: All-In Podcast: AutoGPT’s Massive Potential and Risk Ignore the tech-bro elitism and focus on the wild intelligence these guys bring to the table.

Subscribe: Synthetic Mind, a regular newsletter that will keep you up to speed on this ever-changing landscape.

Read: The Inevitable, by Kevin Kelly From 2016, it’s a bit dated and not AI-focused, but an incredible glimpse of what may come. Written by one of the most brilliant minds in recent history.

Watch: Ex Machina, a movie written and directed by one of my favourite authors: Alex Garland. It’s a decade old already but paints a powerful picture of what may be possible.

Listen: Seth Godin’s Akimbo Podcast: The Dance with AI, Reality and Identity Stick around to the end of this one.

Read: Why AI Will Save the World, by Marc Andreesen

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