“It’s going to be fascinating to see how people incorporate this second brain into their job,” Derek Thompson says.
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OpenAI’s impressive new artificial-intelligence chatbot, ChatGPT, has intensified the debate over what the rise of AI-generated writing and art means for work, culture, education, and more. “You don’t need a wild imagination to see that the future cracked open by these technologies is full of awful and awesome possibilities,” our staff writer Derek Thompson recently wrote. I called Derek to explore some of those possibilities.
But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.
Isabel Fattal: You’ve said that artificial intelligence might be the most important news story of 2022. Why?
Derek Thompson: I see some of the breakthroughs in generative AI in 2022 as potentially akin to the release of the iPhone in 2007, or to the invention of the desktop computer several decades ago. These breakthroughs don’t have beginnings and ends. They were the beginning of revolutions that just kept billowing.
If we are seeing that even small start-ups can retrace the outer bounds of human creativity with small yet steady incremental improvements, I think we should be humbled—and humble about predicting just how wild this thing could get in the next few years.
Isabel: How should we think about the economic implications of new AI tools?
Derek: This is technology that does a C+ job—for now—at mimicking tasks that are very common in white-collar jobs. That means that it can both make workers more productive and, over time, if not make their job obsolete, then [at least] change the kinds of jobs that are available to people in the future and the kinds of skills that are in demand.
Let’s say there’s a writer named Derek. One of the things that Derek does for The Atlantic is explain stuff. Well, if there’s a technology that effortlessly explains stuff much faster than Derek, what exactly is Derek’s value to The Atlantic? It’s not as if his value goes to zero, but it might change. The way that these kinds of tools are going to change how artists and writers and all sorts of creative workers work is fascinating and important to think through.
Writing is not just one thing. You’re answering 10,000 questions, sometimes micro-micro questions, over the course of writing an article. Let’s say I’m writing about new breakthroughs in synthetic mRNA vaccines, and I reach a point in the article where I need to explain exactly what mRNA is. I can call an expert. I can go online and read an article and try to synthesize it for myself. But what if, in a world where ChatGPT is really, really good, I just asked it to explain mRNA in the style of Derek Thompson? Even if it does a B– job, it’s so much faster than having to do the research myself. I can turn it into A– work in a few seconds.
I don’t see this yet as a tool that replaces large swaths of the labor force. I don’t see it as catastrophic in that way, but I think that in the short term, it’s going to be fascinating to see how people incorporate this second brain into their job.
Isabel: A group of educators and writers—in The Atlantic and elsewhere—have predicted that AI will bring about the end of the college essay, or of academic writing in general. Meanwhile, Ian Bogost argues that this is only possible because writing itself “has become so unaspiring.” What would you add to that conversation?
Derek: Some people argue that ChatGPT could replace the college essay, and Ian is saying: That’s only because the college essay is dumb to begin with. It’s possible that lots of things in the economy are dumb in the way that the college essay is dumb. If that’s true, then GPT can still be revolutionary. What it does might be dumb, but it’s also incredibly useful.
Also, for every question people have about how GPT could change X, it’s useful to think: What if GPT also changes whatever the counterpoint of X is? For example, you could say that the college essay is dead, so kids are going to have it so easy now. But think about the counterpoint: lesson plans. Let’s say you want to teach a class about 19th-century existential philosophy and its implications for modern identity politics. You can ask GPT to just create a syllabus for you. It’s so important to think about the ways that it can be a kind of inspiration stimulant.
Isabel: You’ve mentioned that you’re curious how GPT and other AI tools are going to change “the way people talk about talking, write about writing, and think about thinking.” What do you mean by that?
Derek: If we see that a robot is retracing what we thought was a realm of creativity that was for humans only, it’s going to create a certain anxiety about what exactly it is we’re doing when we’re being creative.
I also think that in the same way that Google taught us to talk like Google—you enter terms into the search bar in a very specific way to get Google to give you the results you want—we’re going to learn how to talk like GPT, or how to talk like an AI. If the old line was “Learn to code,” what if the new line is “Learn to prompt”? Learn how to write the most clever and helpful prompts in such a way that gives you results that are actually useful.
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The Obvious Answer to Homelessness
By Jerusalem Demsas
When someone becomes homeless, the instinct is to ask what tragedy befell them. What bad choices did they make with drugs or alcohol? What prevented them from getting a higher-paying job? Why did they have more children than they could afford? Why didn’t they make rent? Identifying personal failures or specific tragedies helps those of us who have homes feel less precarious—if homelessness is about personal failure, it’s easier to dismiss as something that couldn’t happen to us, and harsh treatment is easier to rationalize toward those who experience it.
But when you zoom out, determining individualized explanations for America’s homelessness crisis gets murky. Sure, individual choices play a role, but why are there so many more homeless people in California than Texas? Why are rates of homelessness so much higher in New York than West Virginia? To explain the interplay between structural and individual causes of homelessness, some who study this issue use the analogy of children playing musical chairs. As the game begins, the first kid to become chairless has a sprained ankle. The next few kids are too anxious to play the game effectively. The next few are smaller than the big kids. At the end, a fast, large, confident child sits grinning in the last available seat.
Read the full article.
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Rather than ask Derek himself to provide a pop-culture pick for this space, I asked ChatGPT to “recommend a movie in the style of Atlantic writer Derek Thompson.” It suggested David Fincher’s 2010 movie about the founding of Facebook, The Social Network, calling it “an essential and thought-provoking watch for anyone seeking to understand the modern digital age.” Derek endorsed the selection: “It’s clearly a top-five film of the 2010s!”
Kelli María Korducki contributed to this newsletter.