It has been a long time since a software release has consumed the tech community as much as ChatGPT, the latest offering from OpenAI, the AI startup founded by Elon Musk.
This chatbot, trained on massive pools of data and now able to answer any query you might have, gained more than a million users in less than a week. Post after post on Twitter revealed the inanimate interface crafting eloquent, believable prose on whatever topic was asked of it. Economist Tyler Cowen even got it to write a passable poem in iambic pentameter about economist Thomas Schelling’s theory of deterrence for foreign policy.
ChatGPT is far from perfect. It struggles with facts from time to time, as Bloomberg journalist Joe Weisenthal discovered when he asked it to write his obituary. And The Atlantic columnist Ian Bogost rained on everyone’s parade by observing that the chatbot doesn’t “truly understand the complexity of human language,” ensuring that “any responses it generates are likely to be shallow and lacking in depth and insight.”
But to Bogost’s boss, Atlantic CEO Nicholas Thompson, those imperfections won’t hinder the disruption this technology poses to a key part of the internet: search.
In an enthused video post, Thompson argued the chatbot would resolve most people’s general questions about the world, such that it will quickly overtake Alphabet’s Google algorithm. Rather than “Googling” something and waiting for a variety of ad-supported answers to come back, people will simply ask a chatbot and get an immediate answer.
It’s hard to overstate how transformative that idea is.
The entire Web2 economy, with its hierarchy of websites, from most trafficked to least, is built on a foundation of search.
We in digital media have been slaves to it for decades, constantly trying to satisfy ever-changing demands that we tweak the SEO (search engine optimization) elements of our content posts (headlines, in particular) to keep up with Google’s algorithm.
But it’s not just media outlets. It’s brands, governments, not-for-profits, bloggers – anyone striving to grab a piece of the world’s limited supply of audience attention is locked into a competitive dance ruled by Google’s search algorithm. From that structure was built Web2’s core business model: the sale of user data to programmatic advertisers who pay fees structured on a commodity-like measure of “page views,” “uniques” and “sessions.”
All of that, conceivably, could go away.
What does this mean for crypto?
Well, I think we may have just stumbled on the catalyst to take the digital economy into the decentralized Web3 era, creating new monetizable opportunities for non-fungible tokens (NFT), stablecoin payment systems and metaverse projects.
NFT and open metaverse enthusiasts have debated for some time about what would drive mass adoption of their projects and lead to their longed-for disintermediation of the dominant internet platforms. Would it be the deployment of digital collectibles in gaming? Would it come from household consumer brands and entertainment companies developing direct NFT-based engagement strategies to forge “ownership” relationships with their customers and fans? Would it lie in the new models of collective value creation and shared intellectual property spearheaded by projects such as Yuga Labs’ Bored Ape Yacht Club?
This thinking presupposes these Web3 ideas will drive the opportunity by virtue of their own intrinsic appeal. But the problem has always been that human beings are addicted to, or at least dependent on, the communities that the Web2 model has fostered. Everyone keeps going to Facebook because everyone keeps going to Facebook.
The vista opened by OpenAI suggests that our Web3 future might not be dependent on the appeal of Web3 technologies per se, but by a force external to them, one that disrupts the core Web2 economy and leaves the world open to an alternative.
If the Web2 advertising model is about to get overturned, how will brands and media companies reach their customers and audiences to generate revenue? Maybe with NFTs.
An end to search means that, suddenly, the NFT projects of Nike, Starbucks, Anheuser-Busch, Time and others – all of them championed as a new way of connecting directly and meaningfully with loyal fans – could go from being cute ideas to a viable way to remonetize customer relationships.
All of this portends massive challenges for many Web2-founded businesses. There are also legitimate fears that AI systems like ChatGPT could become manipulated by agents of disinformation and do even more harm to human free will than the surveillance capitalism introduced by Web2 internet platforms.
Still, to think we may no longer be controlled by a single Silicon Valley company is appealing.