The year 2023 - the year of generative AI

Youngjin Yoo

By Youngjin Yoo, 
Faculty Co-Director, xLab
Associate Dean of Research, Weatherhead School of Management

As we close the year 2023 at xLab, we reflect on a year marked by significant technological advancements and philosophical debates about the role of technology in our lives.

We celebrated the first anniversary of ChatGPT which symbolizes a new era where generative AI technologies have begun to profoundly influence various sectors. Companies like Nvidia have soared, entering the trillion-dollar market space, largely due to the advancements in AI and related technologies. This rapid progress in AI has led to significant productivity improvements across diverse fields, signaling a new phase of technological dominance.

Amidst this technological surge, Marc Andreessen, a billionaire venture capitalist and the inventor of Netscape, wrote a vision of unbridled techno-optimism. Andreessen perceives technology as the primary driver of human progress, a force capable of solving our most complex challenges. His view encapsulates a future where AI not only enhances our capabilities but also becomes a cornerstone in addressing global issues, from healthcare to environmental concerns. 

"In fact, technology – new knowledge, new tools, what the Greeks called techne – has always been the main source of growth, and perhaps the only cause of growth, as technology made both population growth and natural resource utilization possible... We believe intelligence is in an upward spiral – first, as more smart people around the world are recruited into the techno-capital machine; second, as people form symbiotic relationships with machines into new cybernetic systems such as companies and networks; third, as Artificial Intelligence ramps up the capabilities of our machines and ourselves. We believe we are poised for an intelligence takeoff that will expand our capabilities to unimagined heights. We believe Artificial Intelligence is our alchemy, our Philosopher’s Stone – we are literally making sand think. We believe Artificial Intelligence is best thought of as a universal problem solver. And we have a lot of problems to solve. We believe Artificial Intelligence can save lives – if we let it. Medicine, among many other fields, is in the stone age compared to what we can achieve with joined human and machine intelligence working on new cures. There are scores of common causes of death that can be fixed with AI, from car crashes to pandemics to wartime friendly fire." 

Also, last week, we celebrated another joyous occasion. xLab co-sponsored the "Designing Digital Futures Workshop," to celebrate the career of Professor Richard J. Boland, Jr., a senior faculty member in the Design & Information Systems at the Weatherhead School. Over 30 leading scholars and practitioners around the world came together to reflect on Boland's intellectual contributions in the field of information systems, design, and management. Throughout his career, Boland argues that our understanding of technology, especially information systems, should not overshadow the essential human elements of dialogue, meaning, and interpersonal connection. Boland warns against a world where technology supersedes the human search for meaning and communication. In his 1989 article entitled "The in-formation of Information Systems", he writes:

"Our images of information affect the way we are able to think about the world we live in, because today we define the world in terms of information and information processing. Our place in history, our economy, our political processes, and our hopes for the future are all cast in terms of information. We have named the age in which we live as the Information Age. We are reconceiving our ideas on the nature of work to better fit our images of the Information Economy. We speak as if computers, telecommunications, and data storage devices hold the promise of the future. They are the basis of our latest thinking on corporate strategy. Information technology is the hope of the professions from medicine to law, and of enterprise from agriculture to manufacturing. This technology will make it possible to heal the sick, feed the hungry, produce the goods, and ensure the future of our freedom."

As Professor Nick Berente at the University of Notre Dame commented during the workshop, Boland's words are so prescient since, today, many of us see AI and LLM as the panacea of our economy. If we replace the word information in his original writing with AI, we have Marc Andresson's unbridled techno-optimism manifesto. The image of the AI-first world is indeed attractive. Boland, however, further warns us that it is not only attractive, but insidious:

"This central role of information technology in the images of the modern world is attractive, but insidious. It is attractive because it promises to locate the information systems professionals in the highest levels of policy making, management, and control. It is insidious because its images of information without in-formation deny the importance of an intentional human community based on interpersonal dialogue and the search for meaning. Instead, we are fostering an image of the world in which the human meanings of knowledge and action are unproblematic, predefined, and prepackaged. The human being is not a necessary element in the Information Age."

This divergence of views - Andreessen's unbridled faith in technology and Boland's nuanced humanistic stance - is central to our struggle at xLab. While we acknowledge the unprecedented capabilities of AI and technology, we also recognize the imperative to maintain our human essence. The latest advancements in large language models and AI demonstrate remarkable technological strides. However, our focus remains on how these tools reshape our identities and societal fabric.

Boland's vision of "in-formation" - the inward shaping of our understanding through information - is particularly poignant. It's a reminder that our civilization's progress hinges not merely on advanced tools but on how we reimagine ourselves and the future with these technologies. Our society's hope lies not in the tools themselves but in our capacity to use them meaningfully. As technology develops, it compels us to look inward more deeply. The hope of our society is not in tools but in us who use the tools. 

As we bid farewell to 2023, we at xLab extend our gratitude for your support. In line with our mission of "Re-imagining Digital Futures for Everyone," we remain committed to nurturing future leaders who understand that the true value of digital tools lies in our collective search for meaning and purpose. We wish you a peaceful holiday season and a joyful new year.