Was the devil's greatest trick making you think tech CEOs are just people?

It’s been one of those weeks where tech makes headlines for all the wrong reasons. (Sadly, the wrong reasons are often the only reasons tech makes national headlines, but anyway…)

There was much fulminating and frothing about the shenanigans at OpenAI, the Microsoft-backed developer of ChatGPT. CEO Sam Altman was fired, then he might not be fired, then he went to work for Microsoft, then he wasn’t fired and now he seems to back where he started, with the people who fired him fired instead.

Along the way, one arm of the national media even described OpenAI as “perhaps the most important company in the world at the moment” presumably because it’s produced the world’s most fun chatbot. We wouldn’t want to diminish the leadership capabilities of Altman, nor the technical capabilities of his team, but it’s worth remembering, he’s just a person.

Meanwhile, the latest attempt to allow the NHS to make use of the badly organised but massively valuable data housed across its un-integrated IT estate, is under fire because of the person who co-founded the supplier, Palantir, contracted to provide data integration software.

We wouldn’t want to diminish the many objectionable things Peter Thiel has said in the past, nor the sometimes objectionable uses to which Palantir’s software has been applied, but he’s just a person. Palantir is just software. It is, actually, quite feasible that it might have been chosen by the NHS because, you know, it’s the best tool for the job? Sorry if that’s an outrageous thing to say.

Yes, of course, we need controls and checks and balances on new technologies, especially in areas like artificial intelligence (AI) and data protection. But, do you know what? There’s a solution for that – it’s called “people”.

It might seem hard to fathom today, but in the 1970/80s there was huge controversy about wordprocessing software. What would happen to all the typing pools? How could executives be expected to learn to type? Scandal! Ban it!

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams famously devised three rules that determine people’s reactions to technology:

  1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
  2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re 15 and 35 is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
  3. Anything invented after you’re 35 is against the natural order of things.

Sometimes it feels like Adams, sadly, didn’t live long enough to add a fourth rule for the age of social media: Anything being sold or promoted by someone whose opinion you don’t like, can only be the work of the devil.

Here’s a bold, foolhardy, controversial prediction: AI is not about to destroy mankind. Peter Thiel will not get his hands on your medical data. But you can be sure there will be a lot more frothing to come.

(c) The Devil

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