SUNNYVALE, CA:  Two topics are animating conversation here in the Silicon Valley— tech sector layoffs and artificial intelligence, specifically ChatGPT.

Concerning layoffs, yes, perhaps 45 000 tech professionals in the Bay Area may be losing their jobs. But that is a smaller number than were hired during the three years of Covid, which was a good time for tech as so much activity shifted online.

Economist Stephen Levy in Palo Alto says the job losses must be put in perspective.  They equal, he says, only 1% of the Bay Area’s work force of 4.5 million. Some cuts may not even happen as California law requires employees receive three-months advance notice of termination. Much can change in three months. Levy calls the layoffs a rebalancing, not at all like the collapse of the tech bubble in 2000 when 140 000 tech jobs were lost.

But the biggest buzz surrounds artificial intelligence. In November 2022 a San Francisco start-up with 400 employees, called Open AI, introduced ChatGPT, an interactive website that uses AI to generate detailed answers to questions (GPT stands for generative pre-trained transformer). Chat GPT can write essays and analyze data in addition to other functions.  It exploded, becoming an instant sensation attracting one million users in just five days. By comparison it took Instagram two and a half months to get to a million users, Facebook ten months and Twitter two years.

Elon Musk in 2015 was one of the founders of Open AI but he is no longer on its board of directors. 

Transformative and frightening

ChatGPT may be both transformative and frightening, at once the coolest and scariest of technologies. In January Microsoft invested $10 billion in Open AI, triggering panic at Google as it feared ChatGPT could revive Microsoft’s little used Bing search engine. Google currently accounts for 90% of search queries worldwide.

Larry Magid, who has been writing about Silicon Valley tech for four decades, believes ChatGPT may revolutionize the way people use technology in the same way that Apple’s iPhone did in 2007 or like the internet itself in the 1990s or the personal computer in the 1980s. These paradigm shifts, says Magid, occur infrequently and often require years before becoming ubiquitous. Another paradigm shift, he believes, might come from virtual reality, computer generated simulations that require the user to wear a head set. This technology is championed by Meta, which owns Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp.

ChatGPT sent shock waves thru Google headquarters. A code red SOS was declared. Google’s founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page returned to help craft a response.  That came on February 6th when Google chairman Sundar Pichai unveiled Bard, which he described as conversational AI, an interactive function allowing users to ask further questions within Google search.

A day later Microsoft unveiled the new Bing incorporating ChatGPT. The company calls it search with a personal helper or copilot. Microsoft boasts that with the new Bing a user can chat, compose content or get summarized answers to complex questions.

Race to market

A race to the market aside, there are serious concerns about AI technology. How can user safety be assured? Will content be properly sourced? What about privacy?  Who owns the intellectual property that is generated? Won’t there be an avalanche of false information? Who will be legally responsible? What kind of regulation will be appropriate or necessary?

Will AI take away jobs? Already analysts are highlighting job categories they see as vulnerable.  These include computer coders, graphic designers, customer service agents, financial analysts, journalists and teachers. But this is all guess work.

One thing is clear.  This technological advance is happening in the Silicon Valley, the global technology innovation hub. The valley extends from the city of San Francisco 80 kilometers south through the Santa Clara Valley down to San Jose, California’s third largest city, at the southern tip of San Francisco Bay. It is here that AI is being shaped and refined.

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR.

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Washington writer Barry D. Wood for two decades was chief economics correspondent at Voice of America News, reporting from 25 G7/8, G20 summits. He is the Washington correspondent of RTHK, Hong Kong radio. Wood's earliest reporting included covering key events in South and southern Africa, among them the Portuguese withdrawal from Mozambique and Angola and the Soweto uprising in the mid-1970s. He is the author of the book Exploring New Europe, A Bicycle Journey, based his travels – by bicycle – through 14 countries of the former Soviet bloc after the fall of Russian communism. Read more of his work at Watch