If We Pay for GPTs like We Pay for Internet Service, What Will We Really Get?

“A swarm of genies in the sky, digital art” via DALL-E

Would you pay $200 a month for generative AI services? It may sound crazy, but I think it’s entirely possible, particularly if the tech and media industries don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.

Think back to the last time you decided to fork over a substantial monthly fee for a new technology or media service. For most of us, it was probably the recent shift to streaming services. If you use more than a few, that bill can add up to nearly $100 a month. But streaming is a (not particularly good) replacement for cable – it’s not a technological marvel that changes how we live, work, and play. To find a new service that rises to that level, we have to go back to the introduction of the smart phone – a device we were willing to spend hundreds of dollars to obtain and an average of $127 a month to keep.

But what made the smart phone great was that it gave us the Internet in our pocket.  It was the Internet itself that created an entirely new category – and the Internet Service Provider who was more than happy to charge us for the hookup. Each of us spends an average of $64 a month to stay connected to the Internet. Combine that with the average cost of cell service (and let’s be honest, we don’t pay $127 a month to make calls, we pay to be connected to the Internet) – and now we’re paying $191 a month to stay connected to the Web.

$191 a month. $2,292 a year. That’s some serious cheddar. The Internet has become the gold standard for what hundreds of millions of consumers will pay for a truly game changing technology platform.

I know we’re at the apex of the hype cycle when it comes to generative AI, but I tend to agree that it has the potential to dramatically shift pretty much everything in our already digitally enhanced lives. And while some have argued that advertising is going to pay for AI, I’ve come to the conclusion that advertising will be a side show in the AI revolution. Yes, there’ll be ads, and sure, the marketing industry will change as a result, but if generative AI is really going to be as big, or bigger, than the Internet, I think all of us are going to want to pay for it in the same way.

First, a caveat. My use of GPT services has been pretty limited – I’ve played around with Bing Chat, ChatGPT, and Dall-E, and I’ve got an invitation to use Google’s Bard, but so far none have pulled me into the rabbit hole the way Google search did back in 1998, or AppleLink did in 1987, or Mosaic did when the web broke out in 1993. Then again, I was enraptured with the idea of each of those technologies well before they became breakout services – and the same is true for generative AI. It may not be ready for prime time, but when it matures, its impact will be as transformative as any of those predecessors.

Then again, it’s entirely possible we’ll mess it up. In I Dream of Genies – But Who Will They Work For?,  I lay out the fundamental problem: If we allow a handful of companies to deliver us our AI services absent the existence of a robust, open platform, those services will fall prey to exactly the same “enshittification” as cable, cell phones, and most of the Internet. We’ve gotten world-beating connectivity platforms right exactly twice in the history of humanity: First with the printing press, and then again with the open Internet.  As long as you have access to the tech and a bit of capital, anyone can print a book or launch a website. I very hope the same will be true of what I’ve been calling AI “genies” – magical services that have the potential to disentangle the digital webs in which we’ve become ensnared, paying off the long-promised and unrealized potential of the digital revolution along the way.

So yes, I’d pay $200 to have access to an army of digital genies ready to work on my behalf. But only if they truly work for me.

Back in 2006-7 I wrote a series of posts on “The Data Bill of Rights.” In it I suggested that all of us should have the right to move our data anywhere we wanted to (Portability), the right to demand edits of data about us held by others (Editing), the right to refuse use of our data (Anonymity), the right to know how our data is being used (Use), the right to sell our data to whoever we want (Value), and the right to control how the data is used by others (Permissions). I’d argue we need the same rights as it relates to how we use genies, perhaps with a few additions.

First, I want an open genie ecosystem – the right to use any damn genie I want, even if some might argue my chosen genie could cause me harm. In short, I want an open web model for genies. Anyone should be able to create a genie and post it online, caveat emptor. As I wrote in that last post, I don’t want to use my insurance provider’s AI genie to disentangle my health claims – I don’t trust them to do what’s right for me. But I sure might trust a genie coded by a team of renegade physicians on a mission to change the health care system. Such a company doesn’t exist, but it will – if we create an open AI ecosystem that allows it. Platform-controlled app stores are most definitely not the model I want to see for a world inhabited by genies.

Also, I want genie neutrality. It’s fine for corporations, services, and platforms to refuse to engage with my genie if it’s proven to do harm to their systems or their customers. But don’t throttle my genie because it’s not your genie, or because it’s better than your genie, or because its existence threatens your shitty business model. We pay for cell phone and internet service because it lets us connect to anything and anyone without fear or favor (well, mostly). The core premise behind that assumption is neutrality – a powerful regulatory assumption that’s been much debated in theory, but mainly supported in practice.

And finally, I want the ability to fire my genie at will, and recover every single shred of data, insight, and content I’ve created using that genie in a format that’s usable by the next genie I hire. Seems obvious, but have you ever tried to get your data out of Twitter or Facebook? Just keeping your mobile number from one carrier to another took decades of lobbying and a Federal policy – so maybe we can learn from all that and get it right this time.

If generative AI truly represents a major shift in the architecture of our relationship to technology and we’re all about to fork over more than $2,000 a year for the privilege, then let’s ask ourselves: What are we really getting in the trade? We should all expect that it will be entirely legal for every one of us to employ AI genies to monitor and optimize all of our data flows, and to leverage those flows as we see fit, regardless of the policies of the platforms and services we might be interacting with.

PS – I think it’s entirely possible that in ten or so years, Internet search – and the billions of ad dollars it represents – might be seen as the equivalent of over-the-air broadcast television. Free, but not worth the rabbit ears. More on that another time. 

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