I recently caught up with a pal who happens to be working at the center of the AI storm. This person is one of the very few folks in this industry whose point of view I explicitly trust: They’ve been working in the space for decades, and possess both a seasoned eye for product as well as the extraordinary gift of interpretation.
This gave me a chance to ask one of my biggest “stupid questions” about how we all might use chatbots. When I first grokked LLM-driven tools like ChatGPT, it struck me that one of its most valuable uses would be to focus its abilities on a bounded data set. For example, I’d love to ask a chatbot like Google Bard to ingest the entire corpus of Searchblog posts, then answer questions I might have about, say, the topics I’ve written about the most. (I’ve been writing here for 20 years, and I’ve forgotten more of it than I care to admit). This of course only scratches the surface of what I’d want from a tool like Bard when combined with a data set like the Searchblog archives, but it’s a start.
Not since the iPhone, in the mid aughts. No, not since the rise of the browser and the original web, in the early nineties. No, not since the introduction of the PC, in the 1980s. Ah hell, honestly, not since the Gutenberg printing press in the 15th century – or, fuck it, let’s just go there: Not since the invention of language, which as far as we know marked the moment when homo sapiens first branched from its primate cousins.
That’s how big a deal AI is, according to academics, politicians, and a rapt technology and capital ecosystem starved for The Next Big Thing.
A few weeks ago I was genuinely thunderstruck. My co-editor atP&G Signal (thanks Stan!) introduced me to a new company – one that promised to give consumers control over their personal data in new and innovative ways. At first I was skeptical – I’d seen quite a few “personal data lockers” come and go over the past decade or so. I even invested in one way back in 2012. Alas, that didn’t work out.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been writing –over andover andover – about how the Internet’s central problem is the lack of leverage that consumers have over the data they co-create with the hundreds of apps, sites, and platforms they use. But data lockers never got any traction – most were confusing to install and run, and they all suffered from a lack of tangible consumer benefits. Sure, having a copy of all my personal data sounds great, but in the end, what can it do for me? Up till now, the answer was not much.
Well that was something. Yesterday the Center for AI Safety, which didn’t exist last year, released a powerful 22-word statement that sent the world’s journalists into a predictable paroxysm of hand-wringing:
“Mitigating the risk of extinction from A.I. should be a global priority alongside other societal-scale risks, such as pandemics and nuclear war.”
I’ve been thinking about retirement lately. I’m not retired, at least I don’t think I am, though moving on from The Recount has left me uncertain about how to answer the inevitable “so what do you do” questions – the ones that anchor nearly every social gathering I attend:
Person I Just Met:So what do you do besides hang out at dinner parties?
The tech press has breathlessly speculated that, freshly invigorated thanks to ChatGPT, Microsoft’s Bing might steal a major distribution partner from Google. First it was Samsung (wrong), then it was Apple (unlikely), and always there was Firefox, with its 200 million monthly users and its tumultuous relationship with its Googley paymaster.
There’s probably a name for it, but I can’t conjure the word: When you’ve been doing something a long, long time, then realize you’ve pretty much been doing it all wrong. That’s the case with me and the drums – an instrument I picked up a dozen years ago but only recently have come to understand as infinitely intricate.
I can’t explain why I started playing, I got the bug when my good friend Jordan insisted I sit down and attempt to bang out a rhythm one very late night. He was re-familiarizing himself with his guitar and wanted a co-conspirator, he happened to have a kit collecting dust in his garage. I was in my mid forties and pretty lost in my career, and I had just moved to a new town. We had a blast making noise that first night – I recall the police coming after multiple complaints, and I woke up afterwards with my face stuck to the snare. After that I built a band room in an out building on my property, found some more guys to play with, and we formed what could pass for a band.
Last week I was traveling – and being in four places in six days does not make for a good writing vibe. But today I’m back – and while the pace is picking up for the annual Signal conference I co-produce with P&G, I wanted to take a minute to reflect on last week’s news – no, not that CNN shitshow, but Google’s big I/O conference, where the company finally revealed its plans around search, AI, and a whole lot more.
Leading tech analyst Ben Thompson summarized how most of the pundit-ocracy responded to Google I/O: “the ‘lethargic search monopoly’ has woken up.” He also noted something critical: “AI is in fact a sustaining technology for all of Big Tech, including Google.” Put another way, the bar has been reset and no one company is going to own a moat around AI – at least not yet. Over time, of course, moats can and will be built, just as they were with core technologies like the microprocessor, the Internet itself, and the mobile phone. But for now, it’s a race without clear winners.
Head to The Verge if you want a summary of what went down at I/O – beyond AI, Google doubled down on devices – positioning itself as a serious competitor to Apple (I’ve been a Google Pixel user for years, and all I want is for the two companies to figure out how to deliver a text…).
Once upon a time when search was new, Google came along and put the whole darn Internet in RAM. This was an astonishing (and expensive) feat of engineering at the time – one that gave Google a significant competitive moat. Twenty years ago, very few companies had the know how or the resources to keep an up-to-date copy of the entire web in expensive, super fast silicon. Google’s ability to do so allowed it unprecedented flexibility and speed in its product, and that product won the search crown, building a trillion-dollar market cap along the way.
Since then compute, storage, and engineering costs have declined in a kind of reverse version of Moore’s Law. Pretty much anyone with a bit of funding and some basic Internet crawling skills can stand up a web index – but there’s been no reason to do so. For 15 or so years one of the biggest clichés in venture circles was “no one will ever fund another search engine.” (A second cliché? “No one’s ever said “Just Bing it.”)
Microsoft today announced a cluster of upgrades to its Bing-ChatGPT product, including:
Eliminating the Bing chat waitlist, which effectively throttled the product’s growth by adding steps to a consumer’s journey.
Integrating more visual search results, which will enliven the consumer experience and potentially engage visitors for longer.
Adding chat history and persistence, a major differentiation between Bing chat and OpenAI’s ChatGPT, and for me anyway, the main reason I didn’t use Bing.
Adding more long document summarization, which is another feature that ChatGPT excels at.
Adding a platform layer to Bing, so third party developers can integrate in much the same manner as they can with ChatGPT’s plugins, which I’ve both praised and trashed in past posts (praised because of their potential, trashed because the model reminds me of the app store, which is a walled garden nightmare).
Overall, this news strikes me as Microsoft upping the ante not only on Google, which now has even more catching up to do, but also on Microsoft’s own partner OpenAI, which until now had a superior product. I’m on the road and not able to write as much as I’d like on this, but it’s worth noting. I’m sure the product managers in Mountain View aren’t getting much sleep these days – the pressure is mounting for Google to respond. And in OpenAI headquarters, the frustration has to be building as well – they cut that deal with Microsoft, and now have to live with its terms.