Updated: Jan 27
The Tsar had fallen. It was an event of gigantic significance, and yet, neither in Russia nor abroad was the significance more than dimly understood.
– From, Nicholas and Alexandra, by Robert K. Massie
When it came, it came with breathtaking speed. Nobody seemed ready. Few seemed to understand exactly what was happening.
Not even the revolutionaries themselves.
It was 1917, and the cold winter streets of Petrograd were on the verge of historic disruption. Yet it was eerily quiet, like a city in the midst of Covid lockdown:
In most parts of the city, the morning of March 12 broke with deadly stillness. From a window of the British Embassy, Meriel Buchanan, the Ambassador’s daughter, stared out at ‘the same wide streets, the same great palaces, the same gold spires and domes, rising out of the pearl-colored morning mists, and yes… everywhere emptiness, no lines of toiling carts, no crowded scarlet trams, no little sledges… (Only) the waste of deserted streets and ice-bound river… (and) on the opposite shore the low grim walls of the Fortress and the Imperial flag of Russia that for the last time fluttered against the winter sky.’
Reading the classic account of the fall of the Romanovs, Nicholas and Alexandra, made me ask myself – this January, 2023, are we gazing out over the eerie dawn of another kind of world-shaking revolution, this time in the form of exponential technological disruption, with a similar cluelessness?
As with Russia in 1917, a dimly understood force – this time in the form of artificial intelligence – is gathering amidst the backdrop of a terrible war.
Confusion abounds. What impacts might this thing called Generative AI (technologies that can generate text, images, and other media in response to short prompts) have? How good will the technologies get? What will the likes of Google, Meta, and Apple come up with in response to OpenAI’s release of ChatGPT a few weeks ago?
That’s hard to know, but according to The New York Times, Sundar Pichai, the chief executive of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has upended the work of numerous groups inside the company to respond to the threat that ChatGPT poses. He even declared a “code red.”
MIT Technology Review also seems disoriented by it all. As it noted this past December, “The pace of innovation this year has been remarkable—and at times overwhelming. Who could have seen it coming? And how can we predict what’s next?”
For one thing, the impending release of “GPT4” means that we should get ready for “multipurpose chatbots.” As MIT says, “… expect the power of the best language and image-making AI (and more) in one package. Combining skills in language and images could in theory make next-gen AI better at understanding both. And it won’t just be OpenAI. Expect other big labs, especially DeepMind, to push ahead with multimodal models next year.”
Greg Brockman, President and Cofounder of OpenAI, weighed in on Twitter with his own bold prediction: “2023 will make 2022 look like a sleepy year for AI advancement and adoption.”
Or as a piece in Medium suggested:
ChatGPT4 has the potential to revolutionize the way we communicate…. This technology could drastically change the way humans interact with each other in the future…. The increase of parameters — a measure of the complexity of the neural machine to do useful things — in ChatGPT4 might prompt a major shift in the economy. With these capabilities, more companies will be able to use this new technology for their business needs. We can expect to see more and more companies utilizing AI-driven technologies like ChatGPT4 to keep up with the ever-changing business landscape.
Reflecting on Generative AI, author Nina Schick represented the views of many by noting that, “even I am surprised by the speed and scale by which it is happening…. this is only just the beginning.”
Indeed. More than a million people tested ChatGPT during its first few days online. Soon, hundreds of millions of people the world over will interact with these new tools. Generative AI will be everywhere. The Atlantic seems to think ChatGPT will “destabilize white collar work.”
No matter the course things take from here, it sure feels like old ways are being discarded in real-time. Soon, once sound business models could go out the window.
It all seems like a strange echo of the situation in March, 1917, in Petrograd, as the quiet streets started to come alive with activity. Momentum was building against the political rule of Tsar Nicholas. At first a clutch of soldiery defected, not unlike the advance guard of OpenAI... and then more and more soldiers (think Google led by the immensely dignified Sundar Pichai) followed suit:
… the depot troops of the garrison had mutinied and were coming down the street. We went to the window…. Craning our necks, we first saw two soldiers – a sort of advance guard – who strode along the middle of the street, pointing their rifles at loiterers to clear the road…. Then came a great disorderly mass of soldiery, stretching right across the wide street and both pavements. They were led by a diminutive but immensely dignified student. All were armed and many had red flags fastened to their bayonets…. What struck me most was the uncanny silence of it all. We were like spectators in a gigantic cinema.
Attempts at Control & Governance
As the Russian Revolution generated its own momentum and logic, one of its most intriguing dynamics was the ever-shifting struggle for political control generated in turn.
The jockeying between the soldiers, workmen, and students of the elected council of the Soviet and the Imperial Duma became confused and unpredictable.
Who, exactly, was in charge? What could be done to keep some kind of order out on the streets?
At one point that March, 1917, a compromise of sorts was reached between the Duma committee and the Soviet, producing the nucleus of a Provisional Government. Together, the two entities agreed the Romanov dynasty must be swept away.
Yet only a sense of disorientation seemed to rush into the void, a scramble for position and influence:
Miliukov, leader of the Cadet Party in the Duma, was Foreign Minister; Kerensky, representing the Soviet, became Minister of Justice; Guchkov, leader of the Octobrists, was War Minister. The Prime Minister, however, was not Rodzianko, to whom the Soviet would not agree, but Prince George Lvov, the liberal and popular chairman of the Zemstvo Red Cross. Rodzianko continued to take part in the government’s discussions, but his influence, like that of the Duma itself, faded rapidly.
Similarly, in January, 2023, as Generative AI’s revolutionaries become ever more emboldened, confusion abounds.
Who, exactly, will be in charge of determining the direction of automation’s revolutionary force?
Some voices will protest that what’s happening isn’t revolutionary at all, simply because the technology OpenAI is employing is also being fine-tuned by its competition. Data-driven AI systems have been built in the past by many companies and research labs. "In terms of underlying techniques, ChatGPT is not particularly innovative," says Yann LeCun, Meta's chief AI scientist. "It's nothing revolutionary, although that's the way it's perceived in the public. It's just that, you know, it's well put together, it's nicely done."
But that’s like saying the Russian Revolution of 1917 wasn’t that big a deal because there’d already been a Russian Revolution in 1905.
As OpenAI and its competitors argue about the merits of each of their approaches, MIT Technology Review promises some sort of clarity on the rules of this game by the summer: “Until now, the AI industry has been a Wild West, with few rules governing the use and development of the technology. In 2023 that is going to change. Regulators and lawmakers spent 2022 sharpening their claws. Next year, they are going to pounce.” The EU’s sweeping new AI Act should be completed by the summer they tell us.
Author Nina Schick agrees. “Regulators will focus in earnest on the space,” she says. “The EU’s proposed AI Act, the first law on AI by a significant regulator anywhere, will be a bellwether. Watch out for how they approach the open source space, that will be very important.”
Perhaps the EU’s growing concern rubbed off on the Americans. In December, 2022, the White House uploaded a new report to its website on the potential impacts of AI on the workforce.
Still, one suspects the American government will be a flawed AI administrator at best. After four days of surreal struggle at the beginning of January, we witnessed the longest election for a new Speaker of the House of Representatives since 1859. It was an almost ludicrous fifteen rounds of voting.
We Americans finally got a new House Speaker, but one gets the sense that when it comes to implementing policies around such a complex topic as AI, these actors will soon be caught up in a play they themselves do not understand. It's safe to say the dim-witted representatives of our present American experiment don’t have us all feeling particularly confident.
And then just last week, somewhere off on a mountaintop in Davos, Switzerland, a gathering of minds debated our collective destiny, and how best to get there. It seems a long way from their declarations of a Fourth Industrial Revolution some years ago, only because that revolution seems to have suddenly appeared like a mob around a street corner in the form of AI-enabled bots… and the mandarins at Davos don’t seem to know quite what to do about it.
The best Klaus Schwab could do, Rasputin to these Davos Romanovs, was urge calm, decry the fake news, and offer yet more mystical predictions.
Does anyone else sense we’re drifting into unknown territory?
Nina Schick had one of the smarter observations about our current situation, adding that the debate related to the capabilities of AI, “…hints at more significant storms. Public controversy about Generative AI will see the emergence of increasingly vocal and organised political movements against it. Training data and the automation of jobs will be lightning rods.”
We are all spectators in a gigantic cinema now, many of us homeshored, staring at our screens, awaiting further developments. Or are we rather participants, as yet unaware we too are caught up in something none of us really comprehend?
Either way, we’re all to be forgiven if we steal a moment to crane our necks for a look out the home office window of our possible futures, waiting to see exactly what’s coming around that corner, sensing a once quiet revolution gaining force into something more demonstrative.
Meantime, the rush into the vortex of a war in Ukraine continues, propelled in no small part by social media and waves of propaganda coming at us from all directions. Armies of bots are hard at work here, too, taking to Twitter to argue their case. It’s an information war of relentless volume and speed. It’s not the immense backdrop of the First Word War against which the Russian Revolution played out, but somehow our current situation feels similarly destabilizing, at times even absurd.
None of us have seen anything like this.
In response, the same EU and U.S. governments assuring us they’ve got the governance of AI well in hand seem to be escalating the conflict in Ukraine rather than seeking to negotiate its end. Because you see, according to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, "If we want a negotiated peaceful solution tomorrow, we need to provide more weapons today."
The moment Tsar Nicholas seemed to finally realize history had shifted under his feet he was on a train out near the battlefront, reviewing war plans, directing Russian troops. Everything changed when he learned his own generals could no longer support him, and he'd have to abdicate in the face of a revolution:
In Pskov, after breakfast on the morning of March 15, Ruzsky brought the generals’ telegrams to the Imperial train and laid them before the Tsar. Nicholas was overwhelmed. His face became white, he turned away from Ruzsky and walked to the window. Absentmindedly, he lifted the shade and peeped out. Inside, the car was absolutely still. No one spoke, and most of those present could scarcely breathe.
The world spins. History marches on. This week, on January 23, 2023, only days after cutting 10,000 jobs, Microsoft announced it will invest billions more dollars in OpenAI.
TrendzOwl has been writing about the gathering force of exponential technological change for years now. It’s one of the reasons the owl first took flight. Any revolutionary force creates disruption, whether it be in early 20th century Russia or amidst the scramble of a technological race of unknown impact a hundred years later.
What course will all this take?
Will the marvels of AI make workers more productive while creating countless new opportunities, reshaping the workplace, rocket-launching us into new kinds of prosperity?
Or will the workplace revolution go in a different direction, with automation replacing more jobs than we yet foresee?
One thing seems sure – like all revolutions before it, it will follow its own logic.
Image credit: from history.com (painting by Isaak Brodsky, National Gallery, Prague, Czech Republic. Photo by Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images)