How ChatGPT will enable the 100x programmer

ChatGPT gives programmers (and doctors, teachers, researchers, etc.) superpowers to develop, communicate, and iterate on their ideas. Those who focus on testing its possibilities rather than its limits will have the early advantage.

one lightbulb glowing among a pack of unlit bulbs

No one was prepared for Google search when it came along. Search engines existed, of course, but not like that—not like Google. It was clear pretty early that Google search was one of those applications that comes along every 20 years or so and changes not just the game, but people’s lives.

Flash forward 20 years, and the next not only game-changing but life-changing technology is on our doorstep: ChatGPT. But ChatGPT is not the next 20-year app for the reasons that so many people have jumped to.

More on that below. But first I need to take you back to 1999, when I was so much younger than today. Google search had just appeared, and I quickly figured out how to use it. In fact, after a couple of years, my close friends in Computer Science and I joked about how it was our secret advantage over people with more experience. We knew how to use Google really, really well, which I felt a bit insecure about, doubting this could possibly be a durable advantage in the marketplace. I understood the nature of what Page and Brin were attempting to do, even if I had no idea how they were doing it.

What made my early Google prowess an even bigger deal was that the people I was working with at the time would ask me for help instead of searching Google. It was as if they were using me and my Computer Science buddies as oracles who interfaced with Google. It was confusing to me. They seemed to be really, really bad at using it—or perhaps they were just intimidated.

Either way, I never fully understood. They would ask me for help, and I’d fight the urge to say, “Just Google it!” (I’m sure you remember But they didn’t know how or they were afraid to try. I realized that being better than everyone else at using this powerful new technology—and realizing its true potential—was my secret career advantage.

I think the way that many of my colleagues viewed Google search in the early days is how many people are viewing ChatGPT and other AI-based platforms today. They’re powerful, so they’re intimidating. Preconceived notions about AI (fictional and otherwise) are getting in the way of figuring out how the technology can be used and integrated most effectively (and safely).

ChatGPT’s true advantage

But just what is ChatGPT’s true advantage? In my opinion, it’s not writing code or term papers, although ChatGPT is pretty good at both of those things. For example, I told ChatGPT to write up a description for a tabletop game based on woodchucks. The result needed editing, but it gave me something to start with. (And starting is always the hardest part!)

Rather, what makes ChatGPT the Google search of a new generation is its ability to allow smart people to communicate and collaborate much faster and more effectively. Effective and efficient communication requires a myriad of skills, and not everybody is world class at all of them. For example, creating really good technical drawings, compelling prose, or simplified analogies, are each part of effective communication. In a way, ChatGPT and other AI solutions like Midjourney have the potential to augment each of us with bionic abilities to communicate. Communicating extremely complicated ideas to collègues gets a lot easier, when you have a sidekick willing to do all of the grunt work.

Enter ChatGPT and friends…

ChatGPT reminds me of the work being done out of IBM Research on Project Wisdom, ​​an open platform based around the Ansible community to help bring automation to a wider range of users through AI. As my Red Hat colleague Ashesh Badani writes about AI and automation.

“Enabling automation to a far larger set of users helps the automation owner innovate while not limiting normal requests. It makes the power of automation a strategic, accessible asset for more users than just the experts.”

Expanding this slightly, ChatGPT and friends have the ability to make each of us bionic communicators. Think about a bunch of people sitting around a whiteboard with Expo markers and sticky notes. Will they get some ideas going? Sure. Will those ideas go anywhere? Some will, but some will hit a dead end because the people in the room might not be great at simplifying ideas, or they might not be proficient at drawing.

But now think about those same people using ChatGPT and, eventually (I’m guessing/hoping), some kind of integrated drawing tool. One of them could say, “Hey, ChatGPT: Remember that thing we were talking about last night for an hour? Make a drawing for that and share it with these colleagues.”

In this scenario, you’d be able to communicate some complex architecture for some system you're building, with ChatGPT automatically analyzing the code and making connections you may never have thought of along the way. It’s as good an example of what Ashesh thoughtfully wrote about in his blog as I can think of. And as people continue to collaborate and iterate on ideas—and as they become really, really good at using and understanding ChatGPT and friends—this advantage will build exponentially.

10x programmers x 10

In fact, I think about ChatGPT in the context of 10x programmers. They aren’t better because they are better programmers (although that helps). They are better because they are better communicators, in the sense of input and output. They know what resources to leverage and how to use them better. They knew how to use Google better, for example, which enabled them to look things up more efficiently and learn more quickly. They knew how to automate anything that could be automated, enabling them to innovate and work on more strategic tasks. Compound that advantage over 20 years, and it makes a huge difference—to individuals and to their organizations.

With ChatGPT, 10x programmers could conceivably become 100x programmers because they will be able to more effectively communicate ideas and iterate on them so much faster. Even average programmers will likely become 5x or 10x programmers. We’re already starting to see organizations recognizing the value of being able to harness the power of applications like ChatGPT, with a premium being put on “AI whisperers.” Plumbing different AI services together in the right way is surely a lucrative skill. And if ChatGPT were to be open sourced, or if an open source project with ChatGPT-like capabilities were to emerge, the possibilities would be endless—and mind-blowing.

The beauty and power of ChatGPT, Google Bard, Midjourney, and whatever else comes along (I’m excitedly awaiting a generative AI program that can output technical drawings) is that this potential isn’t limited to programmers and engineers. Think about a person trying to explain some crazy-good idea for a startup. That was me 20 years ago… and I failed in the pitch phase, because I couldn't communicate my idea. Perhaps if ChatGPT had been around then, to help me articulate my thoughts with clearer prose, better analogies, and great technical drawings, my life would have been very different…

But I digress.

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