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Tech Culture

Laughter, Surprises, AI and Climate: A Look Back at Tech Life 2023

The year showed us that in a world saturated with AI-powered technologies, the most human reaction is schadenfreude — laughing darkly at technology's missteps.
Dec 31st, 2023 6:00am by
Featued image for: Laughter, Surprises, AI and Climate:  A Look Back at Tech Life 2023

Today’s the day for our special year-end tradition: a lightning look back at those moments that seemed to mean something more… In past years we’ve called it “a final closing ceremony” for the year gone by, as we grapple with the ultimate big data question — what just happened?

Every year since 2016, we at The New Stack (weekend edition) stopped to wonder what it all really meant, finding warnings of unexpected turns or even “events that seemed to foreshadow things to come.” There’s laughter, surprises, hopes and fears.

And sometimes even through the haze of the future, the challenges ahead become crystal clear.

Leaks and Limitations

If nothing else, 2023 showed us that in a world saturated with AI-powered technologies, the most human possible reaction of all is schadenfreude — laughing darkly to ourselves at technology’s missteps.

In February Google’s Bard chatbot made its debut by giving a wrong answer, causing a one-day drop in Google’s stock valuation of $100 billion. And by March, OpenAI had admitted ChatGPT may have leaked the last four digits of some users’ credit cards.

In May a lawyer discovered his AI-generated court filings cited non-existent cases. And in July the world watched as the United Nations staged a press conference with nine “AI-enabled humanoid social robots” — only to discover the tech still wasn’t perfect.

Presenter: The point of today’s press conference is to showcase the capabilities…

Robot (interrupting): I’m sorry. I don’t understand.

Presenter: …and perhaps the limitations of state-of-the-art robotics, and how these technologies could support the U.N. sustainable development goals.

As the first humanoid robot warned that all humanoid robots “have the potential to lead with a greater level of efficiency and effectiveness than human leaders,” they were interrupted by a malfunctioning robot that blurted out, “Nice to see you.”

But maybe it confirmed something we already knew. By November GM had halted its trouble-plagued “Cruise” robotaxi service, but not before activists realized they could disable the vehicles themselves just by placing orange traffic cones on their hoods. Maybe 2023 was the year that proved to us, time and time again, that technology’s shortcomings can shatter your dreams…

And in perhaps the greatest offense of all, AI screwed up an order at McDonald’s.

Definitely wasted 3 hours of my life making this today… Everything is AI from the VO to the video and images. Assembled in After Effects.
byu/PizzaLater inmidjourney

Age of AI

While 2022 ended with OpenAI introducing ChatGPT, 2023 was the year that AI began disrupting things everywhere.

And of course, some people will inevitably lose their jobs.

As the year came to a close, an OpenAI research team had investigated the merits of screening AI for dangerous behavior using another AI. But they ultimately decided to go with humans. In October the White House urged the FTC to “ensure that consumers and workers are protected from harms that may be enabled by the use of AI.”

Even former president Barack Obama warned we “might have to think about jobs and the economy differently.”

Funny or Die

But in a November inteview on CNN, journalist Kara Swisher had two concerns. One was the consolidation of AI into a small handful of immensely powerful companies. But the other concern was “not enough innovation.

“It could be a good thing… Trust me, it could be a good thing. But it could also, you know, kill you.”

Kara Swisher has a point. AI’s powerful and flexible capabilities did bring some good things into the world in 2023. Microsoft used AI to narrate 5,000 audiobooks. Envision combined ChatGPT with Google Glass to help the blind and visually impaired. Iterate.ai created a free weapons-identifying system in the hope it could help prevent school shootings. Scientists believe AI might someday understand what whales are saying.

FIFA used machine learning to spot harrasment of soccer players on social media. One research team used AI to identify prehistoric peptides from Neaderthals, believing it could one day fight microbrial-resistant “superbugs.” One startup used AI to generate 471 billion melodies, then copyrighted them all and placed them in the public domain.

And of course, AI reunited the Beatles, and resurrected the voice of Edith Piaf

Fight for the Planet

2023 began with massive rain and a power outage in California, and ended with massive rain and power outages in the eastern United States. (The good news? California’s drought is over…) Half a million more Americans lost power again during heavy rainstorms in February. And by Labor Day, thousands attending Nevada’s Burning Man festival were trapped in mud.

By the summer of 2023, 80 million Americans were experiencing 105-degree heat.

But the year gone by also saw some good news too. The Ocean Cleanup Project stopped 11.6 tons of garbage from floating into the ocean — in a single weekend. There were successful early experiments with nuclear fusion. Several projects launched to suck carbon out of the air. Universities started building green micronuclear reactors.

Maybe what it really shows is that very human will to fight back with determination, and with ingenuity. A U.K. town began repurposing its abandoned coal mines into clean geothermal energy generators. One startup actually proposed reflecting sunlight back into space and tried pumping 5,000 grams of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to test its theory. (“Now we just need to scale up about 1.7 billion times and not run out of money in the process,” they quipped in October.) A Canadian startup plans to make oceans capture more carbon by giving them antacids. January’s CES even included plants that had been genetically engineered to soak up and recycle indoor pollutants.

In September the White House announced the creation of the American Climate Corps, promising to train young people for jobs in the clean energy/climate resilience sector. And the two themes of 2023 seemed to finally collide in the opening remarks at a U.N. press conference last month, which argued that action on climate change could be “supercharged” by… artificial intelligence.

“But all this depends on AI technologies being harnessed responsibly and made accessible to all, including the developing countries that need them most.”

Human Creativity

Maybe the final message of 2023 is that in our modern world, technology is absolutely everywhere — and that we humans keep finding creative ways to use it. On the International Space Station, astronauts tested a laser communications system by beaming down to earth a funny cat video.

India became the first country to land a spacecraft near the moon’s south pole. A horse owned by 391 app-based investors won the Kentucky Derby. One lone retrocomputing enthusiast restored a 1986 PDP-11.

And somewhere in Singapore, a security researcher built a ChatGPT client for MS-DOS.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yes, 2023 brought a gale of technological changes — big, small, and personal. Netflix shipped its final DVD. Chuck E. Cheese abandoned its animatronic robots. A German circus replaced its animals with holograms. Bart Simpson became an NFT.

But also during 2023, the friends and family of the late Steve Jobs assembled a new posthumous memoir in his own words. In it Jobs expressed his gratitude to Silicon Valley’s previous generation, and delivered one more message for the generations yet to come.

“One of the ways that I believe people express their appreciation to the rest of humanity is to make something wonderful and put it out there.”

It’s been said that cynicism is a lazy man’s philosophy. But if so, it’s up to us to dream up a better alternative. The only certainty about 2024 is the future will again be made by us humans — the creative, the unpredictable, and the brave.

And thanks to AI, we might even hear Edith Piaf singing once again…

If the sky should fall into the sea, and the stars fade all around me,
For the time that we have known here, I will sing a hymn to love.

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