Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is an elegant orator, so when he recently said world-changing ChatGPT is the equivalent of a “steam engine,” I could only wonder what Nadella foresees in the explosive world of AI research that will qualify as a jet engine— or even an internal-combustion engine.
In his keynote at Microsoft’s Build conference for developers last month, Nadella was commenting on the astonishing rate and intensity of innovation that has swept the tech industry — and much of the rest of the world — in the past seven months. As he was shaping this perspective, he paid homage to a few big-thinking tech-industry paradigm-shapers of the past, including this anecdote about Steve Jobs.
“The other thing I’ve always loved is Jobs’ description of computers as ‘bicycles for the mind.’ It’s sort of a beautiful metaphor, and I think it captures the essence of what computing is,” Nadella said in the Build keynote.
Nadella then went on to say the generative AI phenomenon has pushed that metaphor ahead to a much more powerful and disruptive source of locomotion: the steam engine. And while many folks have written about that leap of imagination from bicycle to steam engine, I want to share a couple of thoughts about Nadella’s choice of the venerable steam engine as the very specific destination in his from/to exercise.
First, here’s what Nadella said about the new status of Jobs’ bicycle metaphor:
“And then, last November, we got an upgrade, right? We went from the bicycle to the steam engine with the launch of ChatGPT. It was like the Mosaic moment for this generation of the AI platform. And now we look forward to, as developers, what we can do going forward. And so it’s an exciting time. And in fact, every layer of the software stack is going to be changed forever and there is no better place to start than the actual developer stack, right? We as developers, how we build is fundamentally changing.”
Now, to be sure, Nadella was very precisely and purposefully aiming his comments at developers because they’re the core of the Build event.
But really: ChatGPT as a “steam engine”?
Perhaps Nadella was attempting to put ChatGPT in the context of a breakthrough source of power and work capable of delivering exponential levels of outcomes.
But perhaps Nadella was suggesting that as remarkable as generative AI technologies currently are, they represent only a small step in the evolutionary rise of the technology. Along those lines, perhaps Nadella foresees a time when we will look back at ChatGPT and say something like, “Oh yeah, good ol’ ChatGPT — sturdy and dependable, but already an artifact of an ancient and fairly primitive past! Hard to believe we used to rely on that type of technology — and that people that it was so cool!”
My guess is that Nadella wanted to do a little of both by positioning ChatGPT as the new best friend of developers everywhere, but also simply the first step in what will be a soaring and high-speed adventure into the future.
Being a developer at heart as well as CEO of the company that’s been #1 on the Cloud Wars Top 10 list for more than three years, Nadella knows as much or more about the future of generative AI than just about anyone on the planet — and I think he wanted not just developers but also businesspeople to view ChatGPT as not the ultimate evolutionary state of generative AI but rather as simply the beginning.
And I have to say that if ChatGPT equates to a steam engine, then I sure as heck can’t wait to see what will one day qualify as the jet engine of AI.
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