This is the third time I am writing about AI. I am not any kind of thought leader on the topic. I think like most people, I am trying to process what’s happening in every way possible, and writing is one such way.
My late grandmother was uncomfortable in this world in her old age. Even though she never experienced captivity, I think she might well have quoted Brooks in The Shawshank Redemption:
“The world went and got itself in a big damn hurry”.
My grandmother thought the world of computers and the internet was crazy, not just silly but completely out of control. This was almost a decade ago. Although I empathized with her perspective, I saw the globalized world as a vast playground, brimming with opportunities and excitement. For me, technology and cheap flights (despite my climate-related concerns) were things to love. I was a digital nomad at the time and my life felt like one big adventure. Yes, things were changing fast but that change was almost always good!
Now, I am certainly getting older, but with everything that has happened in 2023 already (at the time of writing, Jarvis and Auto-GPT are the most recent, mind-blowing news that I am aware of), I am starting to feel a bit like Brooks or my grandmother. I have an instinctive desire to let this whole AI thing “settle”. I tell myself that it’s a shift, like the internet or smartphones, and like those times, things will be crazy for a bit but then we’ll adapt to the new reality and it becomes normal.
Tim Urban creates a great metaphor for human history: a book. If all of human history was compressed into 1000 pages, the amount of progress that has happened on the very last page makes the entire rest of the book pale in comparison. You should read the blog post, it’s great like all of his writing. It really nails the level of exponential that we’re going through at this point in time.
The thing about exponential growth is that it’s hard to grasp even when you understand it. The Wheat and chessboard problem points out the simple fact that if you start with one grain of wheat and double it 64 times, you end up with 2^64−1 grains, an unspeakable amount of wheat. I know this, intellectually. And yet, if I just try to picture a chess board where each square has double the amount of the previous one, and the first square has merely one single grain of wheat, my mind insists that you would end up with just a pile of wheat. Something maybe in the range of thousands of grains.
If we are indeed experiencing the ignition of an “intelligence explosion”, we aren’t (well I certainly am not) capable of grasping it. Tim Urban predicts that the world will either enter a state of utopia where just about every problem is solved, or it will result in our extinction. I think he might be right, but I also think that until one of those things happen, we are going to feel like we’ve been strapped to a rocket, just trying to hold on.