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April 5th, 2022

Yesterday Google released news of the most advanced language model to date.  Readers may remember that a few episodes of Tinkered Thinking were produced in concert with the language model known as GPT-3, an impressive tool that shocked a part of the tech world that was paying attention. But like many new shiny gadgets, the novelty of GPT-3 quickly wore off. It’s limits became apparent very quickly - it couldn’t reason properly, it made some weird mistakes, and soon it was all but forgotten. But progress does not stop.


We have to imagine the inveterate tinkerer - the person who toils away at an idea. They reach breakthroughs like stepping stones. The thing works! Sort of… and so the tinkerer goes back to work until the next breakthrough. Now this thing really works! . . . but it could be better, and so the cycle continues until innovation becomes so commonplace that it becomes an invisible protocol.


Think of email. There was a time not so long ago when email was a pretty radical concept. Instant mail? That doesn’t need to be written and types and folded up and sealed in an envelope and stamped and mailed? Just instant? Of course, today, email is so pervasive it’s become a protocol of life. What was once only a novelty is now so ubiquitous it’s become more of a nuisance. We become inured to novelty at a phenomenal rate.


And now the tinkerer of humanity has reached another milestone with Google’s new language model. This sucker is wild, and it displays it’s shocking coherence in a realm that I thought would take quite a lot longer to capture: humor. The examples that Google posted are excerpts of the language model explaining jokes. The joke is listed, and then the language model responds with a step by step description of how the joke functions. It’s shocking because this thing explains jokes better than I could, and it does this instantaneously. 


It does well to remember that Wilbur Wright told his brother that “Man will not fly for 50 years.” He said this in 1901.


In 1903 Wilbur Wright and his brother achieved flight. So even the world’s expert in potential flight who was trying to make it happen was wildly off when he tried to predict how long it would take to figure out.


Now imagine asking someone random in 1901 how long they thought it would be before man would fly? Someone that had no idea what the Wright brothers were up to. Chances are solid this random person would laugh and say “not in my lifetime!”


Technology today is developing in hundreds and thousands of pockets, all of which are brewing to the ignorance of almost everyone on the planet. How many people know about GPT-3? Let along Google’s latest language model? Perhaps it gets a spot on CNN, but it’s old news before the segment even finishes and rarely does anyone pause to think about the implications.


Tony Seba is long known for his predictions and analysis regarding disruption technologies. How they arise on S-curves, and then combine and piggy-back off one another, joining, like transformers to create something hitherto unimaginable. The iPhone is a great example: an icon + a cell phone + an internet browser. Bingo. Three separate but similar technologies joining together, all of which required similar underlying technologies to develop before, like the harnessing of electricity, the development of wifi, hypertext transfer protocol, mp3 formats….Modern cellphones represent a vast collection of much smaller incremental human inventions.


We generally see only the consumer facing side of technology, but there’s more going on with the peripheries of this growing realm of tech, and we can’t see it yet. We think these things are in the far future, but in some unsettling cases, the future is already here, it just hasn’t been evenly distributed yet.


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