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The AI chatbot ChatGPT has become mega-popular in just a matter of weeks—way faster than social media platforms like TikTok or Instagram.
Only two months after its launch in late November, the chatbot had 100 million monthly active users in January, according to data from Similarweb. A study from Swiss bank UBS noted that “in 20 years following the internet space, we cannot recall a faster ramp in a consumer internet app.” OpenAI, which owns and hosts ChatGPT, recently became one of the 50 most visited websites in the world, according to Digital-adoption.com.
For context, it took Instagram two and a half years to get to 100 million. TikTok got there in nine months.
The astonishing rise of ChatGPT reveals both its usefulness in helping with a wide range of tasks and a general overflowing curiosity about human-like machines. Experts are split on whether this marks the dawn of a new AI-era or if the hype will die down as people hit the limits of ChatGPT’s current capabilities.
Here’s why ChatGPT rose in popularity so fast, and what that means for the future.
What is ChatGPT?
ChatGPT is a chatbot created by the San Francisco company OpenAI. Known as a generative AI, it responds to virtually any prompt you give it with startling speed and clarity. Whereas many chatbots only know how to respond to certain keywords or triggers, ChatGPT can respond to complex questions and spit out comprehensive, essay-length answers on virtually any topic.
ChatGPT is able to do this by running the Internet’s vast amounts of data through powerful neural networks: software loosely designed on neurons in the human brain. This technology has existed for several years. Yann LeCun, the chief AI scientist at Meta, recently argued that ChatGPT was “not particularly innovative” and relied largely on Google’s Transformer neural net technology unveiled in 2017.
“Most of us are pretty surprised” about the explosive popularity of ChatGPT, admits Margaret Mitchell, the chief ethics scientist at the AI company Hugging Face. “The technology wasn’t putting forth any sort of fundamental breakthroughs.”
But ChatGPT was the first major project to roll out such an AI for the public to use, play with, and break. Other companies like Google held theirs back due to the unpredictability of this new technology and the potential harms it could cause, like the spreading of misinformation or hate speech. OpenAI, meanwhile, chose to rush their product to market this fall in the face of potential looming competition, according to the New York Times.
While ChatGPT is underpinned by complex technology, its visual interface is incredibly intuitive: you simply enter text into a text box, just like you would on Google. This streamlined interface has allowed people of all ages and backgrounds to instantly engage with it. Another one of ChatGPT’s strengths is its flexibility. If you don’t like its response to your prompt, you can tweak your suggestion, and the AI will adjust accordingly.
What are people doing on ChatGPT?
The first reason that ChatGPT started going viral was its novelty factor. Users asked ChatGPT to create a biblical verse about removing a peanut butter sandwich from a VCR, or for Elvis-themed fantasy weapons. Within seconds, the AI would spit out options like “Love Me Tender Dagger” and “Blue Suede Sword.”
Very soon, however, ChatGPT’s usage elevated far beyond memes and parlor tricks, and into the professional sphere. ChatGPT can brainstorm ideas, write articles and code. People began to use it to write entire job applications, curriculums, academic papers and scripts in different programming languages. In particular, programming and developer software has emerged as one of ChatGPT’s main use cases, Similarweb data shows.
Sean Ellul, co-founder of the 3D development studio Metaverse Architects, wrote in a ChatGPT-assisted email to TIME that the AI had been a “game-changer for our productivity and creativity” and that he uses it to brainstorm code, prepare articles and ideate new projects. Many companies have since tweaked their business models to implement it into workflows, including Buzzfeed—which said it would use the technology for quizzes and personalized content.
A predictable backlash has ensued: in order to halt the creation of AI generated homework, school districts around the country, including in New York City, have banned ChatGPT.
The interest in the site has skyrocketed so dramatically that OpenAI is turning away many users, who simply are shown a message saying, “ChatGPT is at capacity right now.” The company recently announced a paid tier that allows those users access during peak times.
Is this just the start of generative AI adoption?
The explosion of interest in ChatGPT has sent tech competitors scrambling to release their own versions. Google declared a “code red” in response to ChatGPT, and recently announced its own Bard AI that will be rolling out in the coming weeks. The Chinese tech giant Baidu is prepping a similar chatbot for March, according to Reuters, while Anthropic, an AI company started by former OpenAI employees, is raking in hundreds of millions in funding.
Microsoft, which invested in OpenAI, is in the process of implementing ChatGPT into its Bing search engine and into its Teams messaging platform. All of this means that many everyday work processes will soon be augmented by generative AI technology, likely without you realizing it.
But risks loom ahead. AI has written hate speech and misinformation, and is now being used to help write malicious code. “As the initial honeymoon period dies down, there’s going to be more and more criticisms of all the problematic ways this technology is being used,” Mitchell says.
Mitchell is concerned about how ChatGPT might influence those who use it for mental health guidance. “ChatGPT will say things that are toxic or bullying or bad advice without having the sense of what it means to have bad advice, because it hasn’t learned larger world knowledge,” she says.
She is also concerned about its usage as a search engine replacement, as ChatGPT answers declaratively things that are false. (It once wrote a detailed history of a “successful civilization” created by the dinosaurs.) “People are much more likely to accept what something says when it’s automated,” she says. “I’m really concerned ChatGPT will be used as if it is factual because our cognitive bias tells us it’s factual.”
And it’s possible that the current AI arms race kicked off by ChatGPT’s rapid ascendance could cause its competitors to cut corners in hopes of gaining market share. During the rise of social media a decade ago, the world saw what happened when “move fast and break things” was the prevailing credo: safety was ignored, and social media platforms played a role in inciting genocides and manipulating voters.
“I’m concerned that regulation tends to be reactive, and will only follow something horrible happening,” says Mitchell. “So I’m really concerned about whatever that horrible thing is.”
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