The internet once belonged to cats.
It was that weird time in the late nineties when everyone online seemed to be posting pictures of cats (believe it or not, My Cat Hates You(opens in a new tab), the blog that pioneered grumpy cat photos, is still online.) It just seemed like the thing to do: start a blog; post a photo of your friendly feline companion; be happy when someone leaves a comment.
There were other things online besides cats, of course. But it was a time when the Internet, then spelled with a capital “I,” was big but not yet essential, and no one was entirely sure how it was going to turn out.
I was there from the start. In 1994, my father connected his Windows 3.1 PC to the Internet via a US Robotics dial-up modem and said, “Son, this right here is called the Internet.”
You could move files (very slowly) via FTP, you can search for documents via Gopher, and the best browser was called Cello. I used it to find some strange poems, William Gibson’s early work and Tool song lyrics. I knew the World Wide Web would be huge one day, but it was still very empty back then. The Internet of that era was not yet for anyone; it was a vast frontier to be filled with many things, and then to be explored.
After that initial era of exploration, the internet stopped being a thing and became everything. It soon became more difficult to finish a school project or get work done without the internet. And soon after, it became almost unimaginable. Companies, institutions and families have all gone online. Facebook and Twitter were born. Some people realized they were spending too much time on the internet. Some people continued to post cat pictures.
I write this very short history of the Internet because I have a strong feeling that we are once again at the end of an era. Despite all the good and bad things it has brought us, the internet has always been primarily our. Yes, some of the emails we received were automated, Google bots scoured the web for information on how webpages ranked in search results, and some of our computers were turned into bitcoin mining botnets. But the Internet was still mostly designed – or so it seemed – to be used and explored by humans.
Step aside, human. Artificial intelligence is here to take over
OpenAI recently launched a new version of the AI model that powers its ChatGPT chatbot, GPT-4. He has, for the first time, the ability to understand and process information from images. This opens up some possibilities that weren’t available before, and I’ve already seen examples of how that will change everything.
Developed by OpenAI, which has grown from a non-profit research lab to a for-profit AI powerhouse, ChatGPT is an AI language model capable of generating surprisingly human-like answers to a multitude of questions. Chatbots have been around for decades, but ChatGPT was different; could respond equally to specific and vague questions; could pretend to be someone else; could write poetry and plays in the styles of famous poets and playwrights (go here for a more comprehensive overview of ChatGPT).
The previous major version of ChatGPT, based on the GPT-3 model, literally broke the Internet, quickly becoming the hottest topic of technology and the fastest growing app of all time.
On the other hand, GPT-4 has the potential to literally break the internet. It’s not immediately obvious. When you chat with it, ChatGPT based on the new GPT-4 model doesn’t sound radically different from its predecessor. But it opens the way for much more powerful applications.
AI expert Travis Fischer lists a few examples of what he can do in this excellent row(opens in a new tab). These include creating an artificial intelligence that can interact with all or most of the elements of a web page(opens in a new tab)as well as creating a functional website by simply taking input from a sketch in a real world notebook(opens in a new tab). The changes in GPT-4 also allow it to understand longer inputs and generate longer outputs, meaning it can, for example, build quite complex apps on its own.
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Unlike a human, who can perform one or perhaps a small handful of tasks at a time, an AI bot is limited by the constraints of the hardware it runs on (and associated costs, but I’ll leave those out for simplicity); give it a powerful processor and lots of memory, and it can do the same thing millions or billions of times a day if need be. When we consider the implications of a tool like GPT-4, we must consider the immense scale on which it can operate.
Now that ChatGPT (and soon similar AI bots) can do both usage web pages and build web pages, people will start using it to browse the web without them, then to build the web without them, and finally to build the web designed to be used without them. The first stage will happen quickly; It will be some time before we get to the last one, but I’m pretty sure it will come. By then, the web will be one giant, incredibly tangled web of data, mostly impervious to humans, unless they use an AI assistant to access it.
Need to do something online? Ask an artificial intelligence
Let’s say you need to browse a variety of real estate listings in Houston; perhaps you are looking to buy or need some real estate data for a work project. Good news: AdeptAILabs has built a bot(opens in a new tab) who can do it for you. In another example, the company’s AI robot can do this perform complex tasks in Salesforce(opens in a new tab)requiring only a single sentence as input.
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If you are studying for a law exam, you might do well to ask ChatGPT for help. After all, according to this study, he beats most law school graduates on the bar exam(opens in a new tab). An AI-powered paralegal(opens in a new tab) based on GPT-4 already exists, and while it cannot replace a human lawyer, it could soon become an indispensable tool for lawyers.
In fact, AI assistants that can do all kinds of web tasks for you already exist, and some are on their way. more powerful(opens in a new tab) thanks to GPT-4. Once you get as good as humans at certain tasks, doing things the old-fashioned way, without the help of an AI robot, might seem like a waste of time. And once that happens, the web will likely start to change.
A different kind of web
One direction this could all go is some sort of meta-web where you rarely actually surf the web; instead, you talk to a bot that goes to the web to fetch the stuff you need. Like a fully autonomous car that no longer needs a wheel, the web may soon begin to change and adapt to a landscape that no longer needs to be beautiful for human eyes to look at; instead, it will need to be easily accessible to bots. In a way, this has happened before – a huge chunk of what’s happening online is done by software, not humans – but at least the human-facing facade of the web has remained. In a few years it may no longer be necessary, or it may take on a different form, perhaps a sort of synthesis, adapted to the needs and interests of each individual user.
A first, somewhat unnerving example of this happening can be found in captchas, the annoying puzzles that require you to prove that you are a human being. Recently, I’ve noticed a new generation of captchas, which use images generated by artificial intelligence. There’s a bit of irony in a system that prompts an AI to create images of robots, then asks you, the human, to accurately identify these images, in the hope that another AI won’t be able to. . In this equation, the human feels like an unnecessary intermediary that will one day be removed entirely.
This is already happening. In a test of GPT-4’s skills, OpenAI made ChatGPT pose as a blind person(opens in a new tab) to successfully bypass a captcha prompt. In fact, he actually convinced a human, a TaskRabbit employee, to solve the captcha for him and provide the answers. The AI passed the test designed to be passed only by humans, and it did so by tricking a human into doing its bidding.
None of this means that ChatGPT is “alive” or in any way smarter than us. It’s still just a tool that humans can use. But the ease and speed with which GPT-4 can perform certain tasks foreshadows a future where it simply doesn’t make sense for humans to perform those tasks. It’s easy, if a little dystopian, to imagine captchas designed not only to repel dumb robots, but also humans, allowing only intelligent robots to enter. A network designed to be used by artificial intelligence might have parts that aren’t designed for human use; not without an AI intermediary.
There is one thing we should still be able to do ourselves, though: post cat pictures.