I’ve been following the story of generative AI a bit too obsessively over the past nine months, and while the story’s cooled a bit, I don’t think it any less important. If you’re like me, you’ll want to check out MIT Tech Review’s interview with Mustafa Suleyman, founder and CEO of Inflection AI (makers of the Pi chatbot). (Suleyman previously co-founded DeepMind, which Google purchased for life-changing money back in 2014.)
Inflection is among a platoon of companies chasing the consumer AI pot of gold known as conversational agents – services like ChatGPT, Google’s Bard, Microsoft’s BingChat, Anthropic’s Claude, and so on. Tens of billions have been poured into these upstarts in the past 18 months, and while it’s been less than a year into since ChatGPT launched, the mania over genAI’s potential impact has yet to abate. The conversation seems to have moved from “this is going to change everything” to “how should we regulate it” in record time, but what I’ve found frustrating is how little attention has been paid to the fundamental, if perhaps a bit less exciting, question of what form these generative AI agents might take in our lives. Who will they work for, their corporate owners, or …us? Who controls the data they interact with – the consumer, or, as has been the case over the past 20 years – the corporate entity?
Those of you who’ve been reading for a while may have noticed a break in my regular posts – it’s August, and that means vacation. I’ll be back at it after Labor Day, but an interesting story from The Information today is worth a brief note.
Titled How Google is Planning to Beat OpenAI, the piece details the progress of Google’s Gemini project, formed four months ago when the company merged its UK-based DeepMind unit with its Google Brain research group. Both groups were working on sophisticated AI projects, including LLMs, but with unique cultures, leadership, and code bases, they had little else in common. Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai combined their efforts in an effort to speed his company’s time to market in the face of stiff competition from OpenAI and Microsoft.
This past Monday NewsGuard, a journalism rating platform that also analyzes and identifies AI-driven misinformation, announced it had identified hundreds of junk news sites powered by generative AI. The focus of NewsGuard’s release was how major brands were funding these spam sites through the indifference of programmatic advertising, but what I found interesting was how low that number was – 250 or so sites. I’d have guessed they’d find tens of thousands of these bottom feeders – but maybe I’m just too cynical about the state of news on the open web. I have a hunch my cynicism will be rewarded in due time, once the costs of AI decline and the inevitable economic incentives that have always driven hucksters kick in.
Given 250 is a manageable number for a mere mortal, I decided to ask the good folks at NewsGuard, where I’m an advisor, for a copy of their listings. Nothing like a tour through the post-apocalyptic hellscape of our AI future, right?
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.
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.”
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.
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.