Every five or ten years for me at least there is a singularity moment. The so-called official singularity, as defined by Ray Kurzweil now chief engineer of Google and before that a longtime futurist and engineer, is when computers grow smarter than humans on their way to super intelligence at more than an exponential rate. For my purposes, it is whenever there is a confluence of advances that today feels experientially different than yesterday. I feel this is one of those times with the advent of ChatGPT on one hand, and Avatar 2 on the other, both in the same short period.
I realize these two technological feats are of quite a different nature but nonetheless they both feel like something is different now. In the case of ChatGPT I am not sure I can add much more to the perhaps thousands of articles and blog posts written about it just now, which has genuinely become a phenomenon, but I will give my 2 cents.
From what I have read and tried myself on ChatGPT I feel this is perhaps the first text-based AI that begins to cross the threshold towards not only passing the Turing Test, which gauges how well an AI can pass for human, but surpasses individual human capability in many realms.
Take my forte which revolves around quality writing. I just did a quite simple experiment with plugging into ChatGPT the table of contents for a book I am beginning to write and out came an almost perfect summary of it in prose that I was able to send out to people without them spotting it was not fully composed by me. The piece ChatGPT produced did require about 5 minutes of editing to get out the obviously non-sensical sentences and phrasing, but what took a total of ten minutes to produce would have taken me perhaps upwards of 2–3 hours. And in some cases the quality was better at least in so much as ChatGPT included quite a lot of pertinent facts that I would not have researched for such an informal piece proving the much wider scope of knowledge that is has on hand basically instantaneously may trump the few pithy and creative additions I myself may have made to the text and can anyways add post facto.
The way ChapGPT is hitting the high tech world and the way it is being used brings me back to a piece I wrote many years ago for my blog Montreal Tech Writer called The Future of Humans. The piece reviews a book from the year 2000 called After the Internet: Alien Intelligence by James Martin. This long book, at 500 pages, I think, pretty accurately predicted how AI and computers in general would be used right about now, as a compliment to people, not as a replacement. But, this does not mean that there won’t be a mass deprecation of much of humanity as this new alien intelligence, man combined with machine, outcompetes anyone not privy to the latest AI.
Indeed, the great tech layoffs happening now which has seen more people laid off in high tech globally, 150,000, actually than during the Great Recession of 2008–2009, may in fact be at least partially due to side-effects of increasing automation and artificial intelligence perhaps working in tandem. I had thought Twitter surely would go down by now after it has been relegated to working with a skeleton staff after mass layoffs and walkoffs but low and behold it still seems to be going strong: can this have something to do with how automated their systems are and even the use of artificial intelligence strategically, with Musk bringing even more to the AI table, with his partial involvement of OpenAI itself, itself the makers of ChatGPT?
Next Level Visuals
It’s perhaps tragically ironic that Titanic is back in the news because of Céline Dion’s announcement of her disease, called stiff body, leading to her postponement of concerts and perhaps her career, as well as of course Jame’s Cameron release of Avatar 2: The Way of Water. The Zeitgeist is quite focused then, not only on ChatGPT, but on Cameron himself and his sheer brilliant creativity. I know there have been some criticisms of Avatar 2, that it’s story is a bit convoluted, the characters are plasticy, and perhaps the save the whales parable embedded within it is just too much armchair faint hearted activism, but for me it was another revelation towards the singularity and beyond in its sheer technological marvel with so much dancing across the screen in a coordinated chaos of visual delight.
I worked in the past throughout the visual effects field in the demi-monde in Montreal with former Softimage engineers, responsible for the original 3D dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, and at world-leader in film and television postproduction Autodesk and Media Entertainment, and even Moment Factory, who did the multimedia for the Superbowl’s Madonna halftime show.
At Autodesk I got to know how Hollywood operates when in comes to VFX, outsourcing work by having postproduction houses world-wide bid on projects and giving the work to those who can do it the cheapest (at a reasonable quality). In this way special effects work became commoditized. (The economics of it were laid bare when postproduction house Rhythm and Hues, after winning an Academy Award for their work on The Life of Pi, subsequently went bankrupt).
Nowadays, with this heady talk of the Metaverse, the actual practitioners of software creation are barreling forward even though the business model of at least Facebook (now renamed Meta of course) is falling apart in this domain. Evidence of actual progress is nicely recounted in Marc Petit’s (an old colleague of mine from Autodesk now at Epic) great podcast called Building the Open Metaverse.
When it comes to the visual effects industry at least, besides its cutthroat nature in the bidding process, I think it will further feel the effects of rapid technological change. I mean, even with things like the virtualization of film sets within game engines (the top two being Unreal Engine by Epic and Unity, both at least partially being developed now in Montreal) jobs are set to be lost, people deprecated, as much more happens in a virtual space. No room left for old school set designers or even mediocre digital artists as more and more work and resources moves up the funnel to the top as Jaron Lanier, the computer scientist and futurist, likes to say.
Braver New World
Indeed, as an old technical writing colleague of mine said just recently of some new medical imaging technology which helps with her blood disease called VeinViewer which projects veins onto a persons arms: the future is now. That is, while I focus on ChatGPT and Avatar 2 and visual effects here, I think all around us there is evidence of even more rapid change in the air and from the doldrums of Doomerism we are indeed waking up to a braver new world, albeit one where our place in it has perhaps never been more in question.