Jan 24, 2023 - Technology

How ChatGPT became the next big thing

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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

ChatGPT has captured the public imagination in a way the tech world hasn't seen since the debut of the iPhone in 2007.

Why it matters: Most of us are only now getting a glimpse of just how smart artificial intelligence has become. It's awe-inducing — and terrifying.

  • When ChatGPT launched to the public, it proved to be much more advanced than even many in the tech industry had expected.

What it is: ChatGPT is a free (for now) site that lets users pose questions and give directions to a bot that can answer with conversation, term papers, sonnets, recipes — almost anything. In almost any style you specify.

The big picture: The possibilities for ChatGPT seem endless. It recently passed all three parts of the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination, although just barely, as part of a research experiment.

  • You can tell the chatbot you're a gluten-free lover of Italian food and it'll spit out a meal plan and grocery list for you in seconds.

Everyone seems to see an array of uses for the technology in ways that are both exciting and scary.

  • It might one day handle complex tasks better and more efficiently than humans have ever been able to. And it might lead us to dark places we can't even anticipate yet.

How it works: Most software is specifically coded to do certain tasks. If the programmer didn't think of it, the software doesn't do it. Generative AI programs like ChatGPT, though, can create unique content in response to user prompts.

  • ChatGPT, developed by a company called OpenAI, uses text as both its input and output. Other systems — including another OpenAI product, called DALL·E — can generate images from a text prompt. Google and Meta are working on similar technologies.
  • Anyone can use ChatGPT for free via a simple web interface, although there's talk of OpenAI planning to launch a paid version, and it has licensed many of its technologies to Microsoft to sell to businesses.

Between the lines: Researchers have been working on generative AI for a long time. In fact, OpenAI itself is already more than 7 years old.

  • But most of that was occurring outside of the public eye. Even some experts were taken aback by how advanced it turned out to be.
  • That's led some to assume OpenAI will manage to fix ChatGPT's many problems, such as the incorrect information it sometimes provides.
  • But that's not a sure bet. Marc Andreessen recently referred to such certainty as "hand-waving" away some very real challenges.

The bottom line: Artificial intelligence has long seemed like science fiction, or at least like something in the distant future. But ChatGPT is forcing us to confront the fact that AI may play a big role in our daily lives — and much sooner than we imagined.

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