Are We About To Experience AI-Powered Vertigo?

The AI Revolution is here. How we can adapt our nervous systems to deal with the pace and scope of the changes around us?

Charlie Warzel’s Galaxy Brain newsletter from The Atlantic is among the best venues for insights into the cultural issues associated with technology. Warzel’s astute observations and commentary on not just what different technology does, but how it fits within everyday cultural context. He’s not a tech fanboy, rather he’s more of an anthropologist looking at how his world is affected by how society adapts to new developments and tools from the tech world.

He’s seen enough hype about the latest fads and features to know when something is genuinely transformative and innovative versus something that’s just a different version of the same thing. So it’s worth noting when he gets flustered, because it doesn’t happen often. In his latest issue, he asks: Is this the week AI changed everything?

Public AI creation tools like ChatGPT, Stable Diffusion, Midjourney, DALL-E and others are among those that have Warzel in a state of vertigo as he puts it.

A Gateway To a New Era

With the latest announcements by Microsoft and Google on the integration of AI-powered chat search to their available tools, there’s been much buzz about AI. What does it mean?

It’s hard not to get a sense that we are just at the beginning of an exciting and incredibly fast-moving technological era. So fast-moving, in fact, that parsing what we should be delighted about, and what we should find absolutely terrifying, feels hopeless.

Warzel’s comments reflect the confusion that comes when a new tech tool arrives and we’re left trying to sort through hype and real change. He shares a tweet from his feed that captures this feeling that we’ve had before with previous transformative tech innovations:

At present, the new search tools look like a streamlining of the way we search. Those who’ve had early access to the new, AI-powered Bing have described it as a true change, saying that using it feels akin to the first time they searched something on Google. A product rollout that produces this kind of chatter doesn’t happen often. Sometimes, it signals a generational shift, like the unveiling of Windows 95 or the first iPhone. What these announcements have in common is that they don’t just reimagine a piece of technology (desktop operating systems, phones) but rather create their own gravity, reshaping culture and behaviors around their use.

But is this real transformation or just a new tool disguised as a revolution?

AI enthusiasts will tell you that the sheer size of these new developments is world-changing. Consider the scale of adoption for products such as ChatGPT, which attracted tens of millions of users in its first two months. Then consider the new scale of AI’s abilities. According to researchers, AI’s computational power is doubling every six to 10 months, well ahead of Moore’s Law. The implication is that, however impressive these tools may feel at present, we’ve barely sniffed what they will be capable of in just weeks’ time. The current hype around OpenAI’s GPT-4 is that it will behave in unrecognizable ways compared with its predecessor, which powers ChatGPT.

Futures, Design and Systems Thinking

What often makes transformative innovations in the tech sector truly transformative is that they not only improve upon existing technologies, but they shift an entire system. These new tools and the behaviours they require create new economies. For example, consider the simple blog and how tools like WordPress leveraged this to create an entire industry designed around do-it-yourself website development. Or what about Google and how it’s search approach revolutionized how we interact with the World Wide Web?

This is where futures-thinking meets design and systems thinking. The term ‘paradigm shift’ gets overused, but in the case of what we’re seeing with AI, Warzel thinks its justified. Yet, unlike with many previous paradigm shifts, we have a chance to think about the consequences of AI and what disruptions it brings. Except, we’re not doing that.

A paradigm shift in how we navigate the internet would likely upend the countless microeconomies that depend on search, which raises the question: Have the AI’s creators—or anyone, for that matter—planned for this kind of disruption?

What will this mean for our organizations and entire industries? We’re already seeing the start of a massive disruption in education as a result of the way tools like ChatGPT enable students to ‘cheat’ or at least submit work they didn’t write, even if they did create it.

It’s not just the disruption in industries, but the social disruption that these tools bring. These disruptions ripple across the different systems we encounger — our social life, community, career and work, and our industries. It feels as if we are in constant reaction-mode, instead of designing our way to steer some of it in a direction we want.

If you thought the content-moderation battles of the 2010s and the endless Is X a platform or a publisher? debates were exhausting, whatever is next will be more intense. Fights over censorship on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter and on search engines such as Google pale in comparison to the complexity of arguments over how large language models are trained and who is doing the training.

This is where strategic design is needed at the organizational, social, and societal level lest we let these tools shape our futures, rather than our values. What makes this so difficult is that the scope, pace, and scale of the transformations across different systems that AI affect. This is the domain of 3-D leadership at an amplified level.

Change Vertigo and Stuckness

Vertigo is a condition that disorients people and blurs physical reality for those affected by it. It creates enormous unpredictability, instability, and inconsistency in how our body, brain, and senses coordinate. Charlie Warzel used the term “AI Vertigo” to describe how he’s feeling by this all.

He also uses the term stuckness to describe this change and vertigo affects his ability to see what’s coming and process how things might unfold with any level of confidence.

For me, all of this uncertain potential for either progress or disaster manifests as a feeling of stuckness. On the one hand, I’m fascinated by what these tools promise to evolve into and, though it’s early, by what they currently claim to do. There’s an excitement bubbling around this technology that feels genuine, especially compared with crypto and Web3 evangelism, which claimed to be fueling a paradigm shift but offered very few compelling use cases.

The situation with AI could easily be a metaphor for what we’re seeing at a larger social level. The polycrises that are upon us with massive convergent and divergent changes in our economy, geopolitics, technology, and climate (to name a few) are creating a sustained sense of vertigo and stuckness.

The first step in addressing any problem is to name what we see and experience. The next is to design a way through it. Charlie Warzel may have named what we’re experiencing. Now, how do we design for it?

Image Credits: Indra Utama on Unsplash, Mae Mu on Unsplash and Radvilas Seputis on Unsplash

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