“This is going to change everything about how we do everything. I think that it represents mankind’s greatest invention to date. It is qualitatively different—and it will be transformational” (his italics). This is how Craig Mundie, former chief research and strategy officer for Microsoft, recently described GPT-4 to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.
After seeing a demonstration of this technology, Friedman recalled the tornado scene in The Wizard of Oz when everything is “swept away from mundane, black and white Kansas to the gleaming futuristic Land of Oz, where everything is in color.” He then observed: “We are about to be hit by such a tornado.
Friedman explained: “This is a Promethean moment we’ve entered—one of those moments in history when certain new tools, ways of thinking or energy sources are introduced that are such a departure and advance on what existed before that you can’t just change one thing, you have to change everything. That is, how you create, how you compete, how you collaborate, how you work, how you learn, how you govern and, yes, how you cheat, commit crimes, and fight wars.”
He listed “key Promethean eras” of the last six centuries: the invention of the printing press, the scientific revolution, the agricultural revolution combined with the industrial revolution, the nuclear power revolution, and personal computing and the internet. Then he stated that artificial intelligence (AI) is another such moment.
He writes: “The potential to use these tools to solve seemingly impossible problems—from human biology to fusion energy to climate change—is awe-inspiring.” But he warns that AI is “dual use” in that it can be a tool or a weapon with cataclysmic consequences for good or evil.
What is artificial intelligence?
The term artificial intelligence was coined in the late 1950s by a group of academics who set out to build a machine that could do anything the human brain could do. This would include skills such as reasoning, problem-solving, learning new tasks, and communicating using natural language.
Progress continued slowly until 2012, when an idea called the neural network shifted the entire field. This is a mathematical system that learns skills by finding statistical patterns in enormous amounts of data. For example, such a system, by analyzing thousands of cat photos, can learn to recognize a cat. This is how Siri and Alexa understand what you’re saying, identify people and objects in Google Photos, and instantly translate dozens of languages.
The next big step came around 2018 with large language models. Companies such as Google, Microsoft, and OpenAI began building neural networks trained on vast amounts of text including digital books, academic papers, and Wikipedia articles. Surprisingly, these systems learned to write unique prose and computer code and to carry on sophisticated conversations. This step is sometimes called “generative AI.”
What are chatbots like ChatGPT?
As a result, ChatGPT and other “chatbots” are “now poised to change our everyday lives in dramatic ways.”
The “GPT” in “ChatGPT” stands for “Generative Pre-trained Transformer,” which is “a program that can realistically write like a human.” It was developed by OpenAI, a San Francisco-based AI firm founded by Elon Musk. Its primary goal is to “generate human-like texts based on the input provided by the user.” When users input a sentence or question to the model, GPT processes the query and generates information by extracting it from the dataset available to it.
GPT-4, the latest version, was launched in March 2023. It allows users to provide input in text and image forms. It has produced human-like performances on several academic and professional benchmarks and has even passed the bar exam and LSAT.
English computer scientist Stephen Wolfram explains that “what ChatGPT is always fundamentally trying to do is produce a ‘reasonable continuation’ of whatever text it’s got so far, where by ‘reasonable’ we mean ‘what one might expect someone to write after seeing what people have written on billions of webpages, etc.’”
His article explains ChatGPT in great depth, but it can be summarized as follows:
- ChatGPT completes sentences and answers queries by building sentences word by word based on statistical probabilities. It is essentially asking over and over again, “Given the text so far, what should the next word be?”
- It develops these probabilities from its expansive knowledge base.
- It utilizes “neural nets” by which it processes billions of numeric computations to generalize from particular examples to “reason” to logical responses.
OpenAI has now allowed ChatGPT to access the internet, run its own code to solve problems, accept and work on uploaded files, and write its own interfaces to third-party apps.
What can artificial intelligence do?
In a recent blog, Bill Gates announced that “the age of AI has begun.” What does this mean in practical terms?
Google Assistant, Apple Siri, Be My Eyes, and others are using GPT to improve their language abilities and provide human-like responses that are accurate and relevant. They help users manage tasks such as scheduling meetings, planning the day, reminding of tasks, and more. GPT language models are being used by Uber and others to provide faster answers and help access maximum productivity in customer service.
Major companies are also using GPT to develop content for their web pages, social media channels, blogs, articles, and more. They can generate content at a faster pace and improve the overall quality and unique ideas for their content as a result. Such content can be optimized for SEO, helping to gain maximum webpage traffic.
Gates predicts that AI will enable health workers to be more productive with paperwork, notes, and insurance claims. It will enable patients to do basic triage, get advice for medical problems, and decide whether they need to seek treatment. And it will “dramatically accelerate the rate of medical breakthroughs” as it mines the immense amount of data available to it. It will empower sharing of data and outcomes around the world as well.
One example: cardiologist James Min has produced “Cleerly,” an AI-based evaluation system that scans the heart and was found to have an overall accuracy rate of 84 percent. This technology analyzes the arteries of the heart to predict the likelihood that plaque buildups may lead to a future heart attack. It can also detect early signs of heart disease. Physicians can then use this information to create an individualized treatment plan for their patients. Min’s ultimate goal for Cleerly is a “heart-attack free” world.
Gates thinks AI-driven software will also personalize learning, assist teachers and administrators, and make education available to more people than ever.
Sam Altman, the co-founder of OpenAI, told an interviewer, “What I am personally most excited about is helping us greatly expand our scientific knowledge. I am a believer that a lot of our forward progress comes from increasing scientific discovery over a long period of time.”
He added, “This is going to elevate humanity in ways we still can’t fully envision. And our children, our children’s children, are going to be far better off than the best of anyone from this time. And we’re just going to be in a radically improved world. We will live healthier, more interesting, more fulfilling lives.”
What are the limitations and dangers of artificial intelligence?
GPT is trained in using statistical patterns of language. As a result, it cannot always understand a user’s context and might generate technically valid responses without broader context in the real world.
It also contains only limited long-term memory, so it might struggle to maintain consistency in texts or during chats. Until recently, it was not associated with the internet, so it could not generate content on the latest events or current affairs. It also lacks emotion and empathy.
Cade Metz of the New York Times notes, “AI is not as powerful as it might seem. If you take a step back, you realize that these systems can’t duplicate our common sense or reasoning in full. Remember the hype around self-driving cars: Were those cars impressive? Yes, remarkably so. Were they ready to replace human drivers? Not by a long shot.”
However, Kevin Roose replied, “I suspect that tools like ChatGPT are actually more powerful than they seem. We haven’t yet discovered everything they can do. And, at the risk of getting too existential, I’m not sure these models work so differently than our brains. Isn’t a lot of human reasoning just recognizing patterns and predicting what comes next?” (his italics).
Gates is especially concerned with “the possibility that AIs will run out of control.” He asks, “Could a machine decide that humans are a threat, conclude that its interests are different from ours, or simply stop caring about us?”
He adds that “superintelligent AIs are in our future” and that they “will be able to do everything that a human brain can, but without any practical limits on the size of its memory or the speed at which it operates.” However, these “strong AIs” will “probably be able to establish their own goals.”
He asks, “What will these goals be? What happens if they conflict with humanity’s interests? Should we try to prevent strong AI from ever being developed?” He adds, “These questions will get more pressing with time.”
The late physicist Stephen Hawking said, “AI could develop a will of its own, a will that is in conflict with ours and which could destroy us.” Elon Musk similarly warned, “Artificial intelligence is a fundamental risk to human civilization.”
“For such a time as this”
In Who Will Rule the Coming ‘Gods’? The Looming Spiritual Crisis of Artificial Intelligence, Wallace B. Henley issued a warning to our postmodern, post-Christian culture. Henley is a former White House and congressional aide who has been a journalist and a teaching pastor.
When a friend warned him of the dangers of AI, Henley writes, “I suddenly became aware of how vulnerable humanity will be as the machines seem increasingly godlike in an age when people are rejecting belief in God as the Transcendent Being to whom all are accountable and giving the contraptions of their own making an almost godlike power and position.”
He asks, “Who or what will control all of this? To what values and worldviews will the machines be programmed to submit? In the final analysis, will they obey their human masters, or will human beings become the mastered?”
The good news is that the one true God is still on his throne. None of this surprises him. He has assigned us to this time in human history as missionaries to our culture, with all its challenges and opportunities. He will lead all who will be led as we use the technologies of our day to serve him and advance his kingdom.
Let’s pray for the wisdom to use AI as Paul used the Roman roads—to share the good news of God’s love with the world. And let’s speak biblical truth to the moral issues AI raises as we serve our lost culture with the salt and light of Jesus.
“Who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14).