Ever since the rollout of ChatGPT in November 2022, many people in science, business, and media have been obsessed with AI. A cursory look at my own published work during that period fingers me as among the guilty. My defense is that I share with those other obsessives a belief that large language models are the leading edge of an epochal transformation. Maybe I’m swimming in generative Kool-Aid, but I believe AI advances within our grasp will change not only the way we work, but the structure of businesses, and ultimately the course of humanity.

Not everyone agrees, and in recent months there’s been a backlash. AI has been oversold and overhyped, some experts now opine. Self-styled AI-critic-in-chief Gary Marcus recently said of the LLM boom, “It wouldn’t surprise me if, to some extent, this whole thing fizzled out.” Others claim that AI is mired in the “trough of disillusionment.”

This week we got some data that won’t resolve the larger questions but provides a snapshot of how the US, if not the world, views the advent of AI and large language models. The Pew Research Center—which did similar probes during the rise of the internet, social media, and mobile devices—released a study of how ChatGPT was being used, regarded, and trusted. The sample was taken between February 7 and 11 of this year.

Some of the numbers at first seem to indicate that the LLM controversy might be a parochial disagreement that most people don’t care about. A third of Americans haven’t heard of ChatGPT. Just under a quarter have used it. Oh, and for all the panic about how AI is going to flood the public square with misinformation about the 2024 election? So far, only 2 percent of Americans have used ChatGPT to get information about the presidential election season already underway.

More broadly, though, data from the survey indicates that we’re seeing a powerful technology whose rise is just beginning. If you accept Pew’s sample as indicative of all Americans, millions of people are indeed familiar with ChatGPT. And one thing in particular stands out: While 17 percent of respondents said they have used it for entertainment and an identical number says they’ve tried it to learn something new, a full 20 percent of adults say that they have used ChatGPT for work. That’s up dramatically from the 12 percent who responded affirmatively when the same question was asked six months earlier—a rise of two-thirds.

When I spoke to Colleen McClain, a Pew research associate involved in the study, she agreed that it seems to track with other huge technological shifts. “If you look at our trend charts over time on internet access, smartphones, social media, certainly some of them show this uptick,” she says. For some technologies there had been a leveling off, she adds. But in the ones she mentioned, the plateau came only when so many people came on board that there weren’t many stragglers left.

What’s crazy about that sudden jump in ChatGPT business use from 12 percent to 20 percent is that we’re only at the beginning stages of humans collaborating with these models. And the tools to fully make use of ChatGPT are in a nascent status. That’s changing fast. OpenAI, ChatGPT’s creator, is going full tilt, and AI giants Microsoft and Google are still in the process of diverting their workforces to redesign every product line to integrate conversational AI. And startups like Sierra, which is building agents for corporate customers, are enabling bespoke usages that take advantage of multiple models. As this process continues, more people will use AI tools. And since the foundation models are getting exponentially better—am I hearing that GPT5 will show up this year?—that will make them even more compelling. This raises the possibility that the quality of virtually all work will reside in how well one can draw out the talents of a robot collaborator.

What past technology can help us understand the trajectory of the rocket ship we’re on? While the near limitless ceiling of AI makes it hard to find an analog, I suggest the uptake of spreadsheets. Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston invented them in 1978, and a year later the concept was embodied in VisiCalc, which at the time ran only on Apple computers. Spreadsheets had a phenomenal and disruptive effect on the business world. More than mere accounting tools, they triggered an era of business innovation and shook up the flow of information inside companies. Yet it took a few years before the business world widely adopted spreadsheets. The turning point came with a new and more powerful product called Lotus 1, 2, 3, which ran on the IBM PC. The current and near-future startups in the AI world, like Sierra, are all hoping to become the Lotuses of our era—but also to be much more consequential and lasting. Spreadsheets are largely limited to the business domain. LLMs can seemingly mess with anything.

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