Before Chaos, There Was AI

We’re not there yet, but generative AI may be the fuel that drives us along the road to a place filled with distortion, distrust, pain, and hate. When will we follow the path to responsible AI?

James M. Connolly, Contributing Editor and Writer

May 17, 2023

5 Min Read
Storming of the Bastille. Illustration for the Charles Dickens novel A Tale of Two Cities.
Storming of the Bastille. Illustration for the Charles Dickens novel "A Tale of Two Cities".Classic Image via Alamy Stock

I have a feeling that history is repeating itself with the generative AI craze, possibly to be known in the future as the ChatGPT Revolution. What I hear from you IT professionals sounds a lot like what your predecessors -- maybe your parents -- proclaimed decades ago.

Heck, I’ll bet that most of today’s IT pros were in diapers when the PC Revolution barreled through the corporate world. When I got into tech journalism in 1983 with Computerworld, mainframe and minicomputer technology still dominated the business landscape. The PC often was viewed as little more than a toy for hobbyists and home users, good for games and home finances.

I remember interviewing a CIO -- a title that was just emerging at the time -- who said he had no use for a PC. After all, he had a secretary who did his typing.

The rebels who craved a business PC cried out for their own machines. There were tales, or myths, about department heads getting PCs by calling them “file cabinets” on purchase orders because IT, sitting behind their glass walls, wanted no part of those little computers.

The IT thought process was, “We’ll look into getting a few for finance; those Lotus and VisiCalc spreadsheets might come in handy, but everyone else can stick with their 3270 terminals. Those work!”

The rebels persisted, and IT bent a little, particularly when managers discovered that some of their own tech staff had become PC savvy. IT leaders proclaimed that any PC use had to be under its “structure” and rules. Of course, they also had to figure out what their structure was about, considering the first PC viruses were still a couple years away, and “security” was still about door locks and alarms.

The IT executives of the day held the royal throne. They sat as confidently as England’s George III, France’s Louis XVI and Russia’s Nicholas II when they faced revolution. By the mid-1990s, the PC had won. Those anti-PC leaders who didn’t adapt to the times had shuffled into retirement, and even those who remained were left to figure out how to manage the latest challenge, the Internet.

Here we go again, the common folk are enthralled with generative AI. Some are corporate line workers who think it’s cool that they can have ChatGPT or some other tool author their memos and documents. After all, who needs to think about writing when a machine can do it for you?

Other fans of generative AI are department leaders or top executives, perhaps the offspring of 1983’s department heads who finagled a PC purchase. They are looking at their departmental and inter-departmental workflows, and they see areas where automation makes sense in terms of time and cost efficiency.

When we read the comments of IT leaders today, talk of generative AI is focused on adopting it in a limited, structured manner under the rules of the CIO or the data science team. Those tech pros have legitimate concerns about security, data governance, ethical use of AI, privacy, corporate branding, and more.

However, I’m not confident that IT leadership will be able to control things this time around.

As we’ve seen before, from minicomputers to PCs and the web, new technologies that appeal to the masses find a way to squirm their way through any attempts to control them.

Plus, there is a factor in this brewing AI revolution that complicates things, something we didn’t see in the mid-1980s. In that timeframe, the established industry providers such as IBM, Digital Equipment Corp. and dozens of major mainframe software companies had to be dragged into the PC business. For example, IBM famously partnered with Microsoft on PC DOS for its IBM PC. Yet, as Bill Gates noted a few years ago, mainframe maker IBM insisted on making PC DOS more complicated to use rather than employing a user-friendly single reboot button. Hence, Microsoft came up with the dreaded “Ctrl+Alt+Del” to satisfy Big Blue.

The move to generative AI may have been fueled by startups, but the big IT players have jumped on board this time. Google, Microsoft, Meta, SAP, and others are carving their way into the generative AI space, given the new concepts’ credibility with new users.

That’s part of what’s scary.

Are we heading into a time when AI adoption -- fueled by big tech companies -- encourages businesses and even individuals to rush ahead with applications, even with no understanding or respect for the need to use data and tech responsibly?

Despite the desire of IT and government to provide AI with structure, I fear that we will rush foolishly into a global fray already marked by distrust of reasonableness and rules. We already are in a state where social media posts spew hatred and partisanship already justifies violence as a solution to civil disagreement. Toss an upcoming national election into the mix along with international strife and state-sponsored hacking, and things could get really ugly for years to come. Eventually, every technology matures to where sanity brings a technology to a level where reason rules. But that takes time and pain.

My personal fear is based on how quickly the adoption of AI has shifted from efforts to manage use in a measured, safe, and responsible way to a brewing rebellion and possible chaos. The crowds of starving and oppressed workers may not be gathering their pitchforks and massing in the streets to storm the Bastille just yet, but I fear that one day we will look back on the post-rebellion world and steal Charles Dickens’ classic opening line from "A Tale of Two Cities":

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness … "

What to Read Next:

Big Data Symposium: Generative AI Not After Your Job (Unless It Is)

Is Generative AI an Enterprise IT Security Black Hole?

The Blinking of ChatGPT

About the Author(s)

James M. Connolly

Contributing Editor and Writer

Jim Connolly is a versatile and experienced freelance technology journalist who has reported on IT trends for more than three decades. He was previously editorial director of InformationWeek and Network Computing, where he oversaw the day-to-day planning and editing on the sites. He has written about enterprise computing, data analytics, the PC revolution, the evolution of the Internet, networking, IT management, and the ongoing shift to cloud-based services and mobility. He has covered breaking industry news and has led teams focused on product reviews and technology trends. He has concentrated on serving the information needs of IT decision-makers in large organizations and has worked with those managers to help them learn from their peers and share their experiences in implementing leading-edge technologies through such publications as Computerworld. Jim also has helped to launch a technology-focused startup, as one of the founding editors at TechTarget, and has served as editor of an established news organization focused on technology startups at MassHighTech.

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