The technology industry may appear to be in a period of dormancy, plagued by widespread layoffs at major tech companies and a slowing economy, but that doom was not evident at a gathering of techies and investors in San Francisco on Tuesday.
Instead, there was an overarching sense of optimism.
They were there to discuss the latest craze to capture the attention of the tech world: generative artificial intelligence. The technology is known to the wider world through ChatGPT, which has captured the imagination with its ability to generate creative text via written questions.
Generative AI is an umbrella term that describes programs that use artificial intelligence to create new material from complex questions, such as “write a poem about monkeys in the style of Robert Frost” or “create a picture of pandas draped over living room furniture.”
While AI more generally refers to software that can make itself better by “learning” from new data, and has been used behind the scenes in all kinds of software for years, generative AI is a fresh consumer-facing spin on the concept.
Around 1,000 people from around the world, including AI researchers and content marketers, attended Tuesday’s Gen AI conference, which was organized by startup Jasper. It was a lavish affair, held at Pier 27 on the Embarcadero, overlooking San Francisco Bay.
Attendees enjoyed free farm-to-table lunches and bonne bouche delicacies and sipped coffee from mugs, not the disposable cups typical of most tech events. In the “Art Experience” room, guests could zone out and gaze at the computer-generated images that covered the walls, featuring scenes of multicolored cityscapes and abstract, transforming shapes.
“To me, it feels like it’s exploding in a way that Web3 felt like in 2021,” said Ken Walton, vice president of growth for Azra Games, which incorporates blockchain technologies and is backed by Andreessen Horowitz.
“There’s a sense of wide-open opportunity,” he told CNBC.
Rising interest rates and the resulting cryptocurrency meltdown of 2022 hit the tech industry, as venture-backed titans like FTX and BlockFi imploded and many digital coins lost significant value.
The mood in Silicon Valley and the surrounding San Francisco Bay Area was somber.
Then came ChatGPT, from Microsoft-backed startup OpenAI. The underlying AI software that powers ChatGPT, a kind of machine learning technology known as a “large language model,” is not new. But the chat program’s easy-to-use interface meant the masses could now play with cutting-edge software previously restricted to AI researchers and technologists.
Suddenly the technology sector seemed exciting again. The venture capital community poured $1.4 billion last year into startups that specialize in the technology and have amplified the rhetoric.
As Bessemer Venture Partners’ Sameer Dholakia told the crowd, generative AI could change “the lives of billions of people.”
Conference organizer Jasper received $125 million in funding in October from investors such as Bessemer, Coatue and IVP. Jasper incorporates technologies from OpenAI and others into the software that generates advertising copy for marketers, among others.
But the field of generative AI is so new that startups are still trying to find appropriate business uses and figure out how to make money. Because language models like OpenAI’s GPT family of software have gotten much better at producing readable text, investors believe that content marketing represents an easy sell.
Conference participant Arshavir Blackwell, a machine learning expert and principal at Arvoinen Consulting, told CNBC that he is interested in using generative AI technologies like ChatGPT to produce more compelling Facebook ads for clients as part of his consulting business. Blackwell said he believes copywriting software has improved so much that it may be possible for advertisers to come up with ad copy that resonates with users in ways they hadn’t imagined.
Blackwell credits OpenAI and ChatGPT with showing people what’s possible with generative AI, and shining a spotlight on the industry at large.
“They weren’t afraid to take risks,” Blackwell said, noting that the AI startup continued to release new iterations of its software despite its propensity to generate inaccurate information and produce the occasional offensive commentary.
At the same time, advances in computing, particularly the development of a type of computing chip known as a GPU, have made it easier to develop the machine learning software that allows these programs to create more realistic text and images.
“The bottleneck has been the data processing,” Blackwell said.
Still, he notes, training these massive AI technologies “costs like $5 million.” For now, startups like OpenAI and Stability AI, which developed a popular open-source image-generating tool, depend on big investors to give them money to create their tools.
During a conference session, Dario Amodi, CEO of AI startup Anthropic, told the audience that companies are becoming more comfortable spending a lot of money on AI because they see the software getting more capable every day.
Until a year ago, Amodei said, “you could only justify a few million dollars” on AI projects. “People are spending $100 million now,” he said.
Still, software incorporating generative AI can prove unwieldy, especially when users make it perform tasks it was not intended to do. For example, Microsoft’s recently released experimental chat tool for the Bing search engine has generated bizarre and sometimes disturbing conversations based on certain questions.
“The model at times tries to respond or reflect in the tone it is asked to respond to which can lead to a style we did not intend,” Microsoft said in a blog post addressing the debacle.
That’s part of the mystery of developing and using generative AI.
“I’ve never seen a technology that’s been produced as such where on the one hand you put in all this data, have thousands of GPUs, it costs $10 million, maybe $100 million, to train, and once you train it, you don’t necessarily know everything it can do,” Amodei told attendees.
As Jai Das, a president and partner at Sapphire Ventures, noted on Twitter, “Generative AI is an interesting option for content creation, but let’s be honest, the content is very boring and generic.”
“Basically it’s just a tool,” he added in another chirping.
But for one day in San Francisco, generative artificial intelligence was more than just a tool. It was the next leap forward in computing.
“We know we’re in one of those moments,” Dholakia told attendees. “This is, as we’ve seen before in previous generations, a technical leap forward — like cloud computing, like mobile, like the Internet — that fundamentally changes the way we operate.”
In the meantime, while tech enthusiasts and investors debate its importance, we can enjoy the results, such as ChatGPT’s attempt to write a poem about monkeys in the style of Robert Frost:
In the forest, where trees stand tall and big,
A bunch of monkeys roam the land,
With nimble hands and playful eyes,
They chatter, jump and swing on vines.
In the middle of the green they find fun,
In a world where joy is never made,
Where every tree is a new playground,
And every fruit a prize to pursue.
Like mischievous sprites they dart and dance,
With a joy that seems to take a chance,
And in their playful, wild abandon,
They seem to laugh at the demands of life.
Yet, in their eyes lies a wisdom,
A knowing glimpse that underlies,
Their antics, pranks and playful ways,
A feeling of life that lasts for days.
So let us learn from these righteous creatures,
And let our hearts go to the air,
With playful spirits, like wild monkeys,
In a world that is happy, free and gentle.
See: Charlie Munger weighs in on ChatGPT3.