It’s alive — with possibilities
Just a word of friendly warning: Our November cover story is one of the strangest tales ever told. I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even horrify you. So, if any of you feel you do not wish to subject your nerves to such a strain, now’s your chance to … well, we warned you.
With that tongue-in-cheek nod to the introduction from Universal Pictures’ 1931 horror classic “Frankenstein” behind us, I confess that I’m writing these words in October, smack in the middle of that autumn month filled with ghosts and goblins and things that go bump in the night. And it’s appropriate to reference “Frankenstein,” given that this month’s cover story by Virginia Business Associate Editor Katherine Schulte is concerned with humanity’s quest to artificially replicate intelligence and how the business community hopes to harness that lightning-fast technology for increased productivity and profits — topics that can induce feelings ranging from excitement to dread.
Two of the most common refrains I’ve heard about artificial intelligence this year are these: “You may not lose your job to AI, but you will lose your job to someone who knows how to use it,” and “The opportunity outweighs the fear.”
To be sure, from the moment OpenAI unveiled its ChatGPT generative AI platform to the public one year ago, there have been strong scents in the air of both fear and money.
ChatGPT has passed the nation’s standardized bar exam, scoring better than 90% of lawyers who took the test. It’s been used to diagnose illnesses, research legal precedents and write everything from e-books and marketing emails to Excel formulas and computer code.
Personally, I’ve used it to draft business letters and marketing materials. I find its efforts can generally be too effusive, but even requiring a little tweaking, it admittedly has saved me some time. Similarly, I’ve tasked ChatGPT with organizing large groups of data into spreadsheets. For those chores, the results have been a bit more uneven. ChatGPT can spit out a spreadsheet in a couple minutes or less, but it’s kind of like having a speedy college intern who requires some hand-holding and may be prone to mistakes. Sometimes, in its eagerness to please, ChatGPT will invent missing data without understanding that’s not helpful or appropriate. Other times, it may place data in the wrong rows or columns. However, even with correcting ChatGPT’s work, a job that might have taken me two or three hours on my own only took about 45 minutes to an hour to complete.
And while Virginia Business isn’t using AI to write news stories — sorry to disappoint, but this column was written by a ho-hum human — you may have guessed that the striking art adorning our cover and illustrating its accompanying feature story this month were generated using artificial intelligence.
The past year has seen dramatic improvements in AI art tools such as Midjourney and Adobe Firefly, which have learned from a huge body of existing images (mostly by human artists) to generate new artwork. With Adobe’s latest updates, a minimally skilled user like myself can generate startlingly creative works. In Photoshop, I can take a pastoral farm photo and instantly replace a barn with photorealistic cows just by typing in those words; it will appear as if the barn had never been there. That’s fantastic if I’m creating generic illustrations, but that might be problematic if I’m a real estate agent who’s marketing a specific property and decides to spiff it up to look better than reality. Because we humans are operating this tech, it is as rife with possibilities for productivity as it is for misuse. As Schulte reports in her story, Virginia companies from accounting firms to health care systems and law firms are exploring not only real-world applications for generative AI, but also how to install virtual guardrails around it.
Like Dr. Frankenstein, the geniuses who are spawning today’s AI tools are hardly pausing to consider the ramifications before sending their creations shambling into the world. And like Frankenstein’s lightning-birthed monster, generative AI’s existence presents a host of ethical questions that are fast following behind it.