Alien Intelligences

What ChatGPT tells us about our minds

Gaurav Suri Illustrations by Shagnik Chakraborty
30 September, 2023

THE WORLD has changed. We are now, for the first time in human history, living among sophisticated intelligences that are not human. The most prominent of these artificial-intelligence applications are large language models, such as OpenAI’s GPT (and its chatbot, ChatGPT) and Google’s LaMDA (and its chatbot, BARD), that are capable of having natural conversations on a nearly limitless range of subjects. The capabilities of these LLMs, scarcely imaginable a decade ago, allow them to talk to us as a friend, or a trusted advisor, might.

In January this year, merely two months after its launch, ChatGPT had over 100 million unique users—unprecedented growth for any application. (The social-media sites TikTok and Instagram took nine and thirty months, respectively, to achieve that figure.) BARD, which was released to the general public in May, logged 142.6 million visits that month. The immense popularity of these chatbots, which have been integrated into a number of existing applications, has sparked a cottage industry of lectures, articles, books and YouTube videos explaining how they work, as well as of think pieces debating what they mean for the future of work.

A question you might be asking yourself is why you should care about understanding AI or LLMs at all. Many people, after all, drive their car or use their phones without knowing how they work. There are two types of answers to this question.

The first answer is practical. A car driver or cell phone user must have at least a minimum understanding of their implement to get the most out of it. Moreover, LLMs have already begun fundamentally altering our lives. In fields as diverse as software development, customer service, marketing, sales, law, education and journalism, LLMs are changing how we work. They can assist software developers by generating snippets of code or completing code segments based on context. They can provide intelligent suggestions, improve code quality and enhance productivity by automating repetitive tasks. They can enhance customer service experiences by providing instant responses, answering frequently asked questions and engaging in more dynamic and contextually relevant conversations. So how can we afford to not understand what an LLM does?