On 14 March, the OpenAI founder Sam Altman unveiled GPT-4, the latest iteration of his laboratory’s learning language model, via live stream. Like a Victorian showman demonstrating the powers of his automaton, Altman revealed a machine that could create a working website from a photograph of a badly drawn sketch, then successfully complete a tax return before composing a rhyming poem about the paperwork. Alan Turing would be in awe.
Indeed, Altman has described his artificial intelligence creation, GPT – or the more user-friendly chatbot interface ChatGPT – as a benevolent, intelligent companion “helping us be the best version of ourselves”, while solving the world’s problems like cancer and climate change. And when it comes to work, he says, “traditional work, in the way we think of it, should be optional”.
GTP-4 was made available to the public the same day. By 15 March – just one day later – a community of independent “solopreneurs” had sprung up attempting to answer the most pressing of questions: can this make me money, fast? Jackson Greathouse Fall announced he had asked GPT-4 to start a business with $100 investment, and various hustle bros jumped on to the #HustleGPT trend.
Fall’s enterprise appears to be gaining ground. Twelve days in and he – acting on the AI’s instruction – has launched a website, GreenGadgetGuru.com, attracted more than $7,000 in investment, and hired two freelancers to “create” content by entering prompts into GPT and the AI image creator, Midjourney. Millions are now following his journey, with hundreds more launching their own ventures inspired by Fall’s experiment. The HustleGPT GitHub, at the time of writing, cites around 190 active ventures launched in partnership with GPT-4, with 26 claiming to be making money. The range and quality of these ventures is impressive: AI has been creating cocktail recipes, writing brand-new games and designing rude greetings cards.
[See also: ChatGPT and the death of the author]
So far, these businesses are mostly fun, good-natured and creative. But the excitement of these “solopreneurs” is merely an innocent microcosm of the more consequential negotiations happening in the boardrooms of Silicon Valley. Because AI is about to become big business – or indeed, the only business.
Technology has had a rapid march in iterative progress over recent decades but relatively few genuine step-changes: the graphic user interface, the world wide web, social media, the smartphone – all of which created the fortunes of companies now richer than many countries (Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Apple, respectively).
But as the latest revolution in human-computer interaction, it’s likely that AI will dwarf them all. An interface that allows you to “speak” to the internet like a human, that generates human-like conversational responses for any question or demand you can imagine? That searches the web for you to find the most reliable results? That places your orders, manages your life, writes your code, runs your business? It is a leap forward that has no comparison.
The cast list behind OpenAI is a familiar one: it was founded as an open-source non-profit with donations from Elon Musk, the venture capitalist Peter Thiel and Altman – himself a former president of Silicon Valley uber-incubator Y-combinator – “as a counterpoint to Google”. The firm has also attracted investment from Jeff Bezos’s Amazon Web Services. Microsoft, itself an early donor to the project, announced in January a “multi-year, multibillion-dollar investment” in OpenAI.
When the company moved from a non-profit to a “capped” for-profit model in 2019, Altman described it as a safeguard against the temptation to generate “close to infinite wealth”. Musk, meanwhile, distanced himself, writing on Twitter it was now “effectively controlled by Microsoft. Not what I intended at all.”
Altman may have a beguiling vision of human leisure and meaning aided by benevolent robots, but others disagree. Erik Brynjolfsson, a US academic and co-author of The Second Machine Age (2014), has argued that “technology is the main driver of the recent increases in inequality”. It’s not just that computers can replace human jobs – rather that the real winners of a technology economy are the few who can harness the technology most effectively. It might look like GDP is increasing, Brynjolfsson says, but not everyone is benefiting.
When Jackson Fall started the HustleGPT trend, he wanted to see if the AI could help him make $100,000 in 30 days. The stakes that Gates, Thiel, Altman, et al are playing with are many orders of magnitude higher. In the end, the budding entrepreneurs benefiting from GPT’s skills could effectively be the gig workers of the new order, while the real winners remain the world’s very few wealthiest.
Unless, of course, the machine really does become sentient. Then all bets are off.