Happy New Year, dear readers. These were the tech stories that interested me most in 2023, along with my commentary.
Society scrambled to deal with the unexpected arrival of alien intelligence
For all their sophistication, large language models are still poorly understood, with researchers having to rely on trial-and-error and human assessments to make any sorts of meaningful predictions about what a given model is capable of. This is one reason why ChatGPT caught everyone surprise with its public release in late 2022, despire the underlying GPT-3 model having been public for some months. The immense implications only became clear when a hundred million people put it through its paces.
By start of 2023, it was clear the world would be changing in multiple dimensions. School essays were one of the obvious applications. GPT-4 already receives high grades in written university-level exams and is capable of writing at any level, even introducing deliberate mistakes if instructed. It’s a fantasy to suggest any system will ever be able to detect AI writing. Therefore, schools are now in the position of rethinking everything about how projects are assigned and evaluated. It’s easy to go to the other extreme and say “we should embrace the tools as students will have to work with them for the rest of their lives”, but if you hadn’t even considered this technology a year ago, how could you even begin to imagine what today’s students will be working with a decade from now. It certainly won’t be anything as simple as GPT-4.
As with schools, so go blogging and journalism. Several publications, such as Sports Illustrated, were sprung using AI journalists, while others like Insider were more honest about this new direction. Meanwhile, OpenAI struck a deal with Axel-Springer (who owns Insider among others) to integrate their content. Concern about fake articles may prove to be futile since it’s not even obvious how much people will want to consume articles at all. If OpenAI can funnel high-integrity news into its assistants, the assistant can write or speak about the content in a manner that’s completely customized to the user.
It’s not just LLMs, but the related AI technologies that are able to generate out-of-this-world quality images in a matter of seconds. These are having profound impacts on the way people work and a key cause of the Hollywood strikes that occurred in 2023, a precursor of tension that’s about to come across the whole economy. Lawyers will be busy, no matter how many AI tools there are to scan cases and make their arguments.
Tech world bifurcated into accel versus decel
Doomsday stories are nothing new to humanity and there’s a long backlog of concerns over AI taking out humanity, but it’s suddenly became a major concern among practitioners. The sudden emergence of technology that can - for all intents and purposes - pass the Turing test has raised concerns about superintelligence arriving before long. Not only will the usual laws of exponential growth apply, but now there are a theoretically unlimited quantum of human-like intelligences supporting the effort. With all the frailties of human cognitive capability and society’s structured, the prospect of taming such AI has been likened to a medieval army battling against a modern drone army.
Increasing AI capability - but also concern - has been the great strides made in open-source AI over the past year. Meta officially released its Llama Model as open-source, free for experimentation by all but its largest competitors. Many hobbyists and startups figured out ways to get the best bang from buck running on local machines or self-hosted servers, and ways to train on readily available data or even learn from interacting with existing commercial models.
Open-source makes the technology more widespread and also allows for the possibility of removing the AI’s values that are, in theory, aligned with the interests of humanity. Furthermore, it can be run on one’s own machine, removing the ability for platforms and authorities to monitor for concerning usage. Advocates will counter that centralised control of superintelligent power will lead to tyranny -for which many precedents exist. Even more likely, they argue, we’ll lose control altogether. It would be the equivalent of an ant creating humanity to make its life easier. Being the creator doesn’t confer unlimited control rights.
All of this has heightened focus from politicians. Many in government lament ignoring the need to regulate social media in the 2010s and want to make amends by with AI regulation in the 2020s. In a few short months, government awareness went from the president’s spokesperson ridiculing AI fears to congressional hearings to an executive order on safe AI
Web closed after 33 years of public service
The web began as an open platform - open-source browsers exchanging public content over open protocols. As search grew to prominence, more attention was paid to the robots that would read content programmatically, leading to a universe of metadata. This philosophy peaked in the Web 2.0 era, when companies took a further step and exposed their services as HTTP-powered APIs, enabling them to be accessed programmatically.
Around 2010, the tide began to turn. Newer companies like Facebook and Uber were more apprehensive, releasing limited APIs if at all, and even shuttering them. Those who wanted access to services were now forced to scrape content, simulating a human using a browser. Websites responded with CAPTCHA. It became a cat and mouse game.
Several things changed in 2023 that made sites lock down even harder. Interest rates continued to rise, making the economy even more unpleasant for the tech industry than the previous year (unless you append AI to your name). Companies like Reddit and Twitter had allowed third-party apps to siphon away much of the value they creeated, and wanted that to proceed no longer. With Reddit eyeing an IPO and Twitter’s new austere policies, they simply turned off the drip at short notice and obsoleted dozens of apps, to the disappointment of many millions of users.
Second, proprietary data became the new oil as it can be used to train large language models. With programmers characteristically being early adopters, it was StackOverflow that immediately felt the effects of ChatGPT, Copilot and similar tools that could solve programming questions more effectively. Site traffic for the 15 year old site reduced by 50% eight months afer ChatGPT launched. As well as banning AI-generated answers, the company blocked ChatGPT from scraping. Preventing AI bots was also the official reason given by the aforementioned Reddit and Twitter too.
Indeed, the whole model of search and browsing has begun its long decline. Why jump through dozens of blue links, wading past each of their unique sets of cookie disclaimers and popup flyover slideunder advertising, reading the text, when you can just talk to your AI assistant about it. This not only means the AI assistant will need training - see previous point - but in many cases, it will also need to make real-time queries of those websites, given that the training date lags by months and may be incomplete. Again, this means AI is exacerbating the traditional open model of the web.
Publishers will want to be compensated if users are no longer directly monetizable, so they will continue to put up barriers to browsing. And since CAPTCHA can longer be expected to work in an era where machines are rapidly outsmarting humans, the only viable solution will be authenticating on every site.
A silver lining here is this probably leads to a golden age for API monetization, so we may have come full circle where sites start to charge for their data. Users simply aren’t going to visit sites like they used to, and they aren’t going to use every company’s single-serving bot. The primary use case will be aggregators that pull together thousands of sources into a coherent experience mediated by AI. That’s why OpenAI has already partnered with a news publisher. Conventional browser traffic, along with search, will go away.
A final downside for the web is that search engines may become overwhelmed with AI-powered content. Google has been dealing with this problem for many years, but that’s no great comfort since Google search has - anecdotally, at least - gotten worse for many years. If the proliferation of AI content degrades search even further, it will be a positive feedback loop for AI assistants, trained on higher-quality data because they can pay directly for it to replace search altogether.
Enhanced reality overtook virtual reality, for now
Apple’s Vision Pro was finally unveiled, in demo form at least, mimicking Apple’s uncharacteristically early announcement of the original iPhone. That’s a wise move on Apple’s part, since they will need an abnormally high amount of developer input, as well as having manufacturing challenges that will not see the device gain Apple-scale adoption for several years, no matter how much demand is present.
Vision Pro is fundamentally a device for single-player use at home. Similar to the iPad bootstrapping itself by supporting iPhone apps, Apple can leverage the existing universe of iOS and MacOs to launch Vision Pro with thousands of use cases supported. Judging from early reviews, the display is so ridiculously good that it genuinely achieves the dream of a portable multi-screen setup, albeit noticeably heavy (and perhaps with a soft bias from those journalists lucky enough to try it off the bat). No doubt that’s textbook skeuomorphistic design; it’s only a stepping stone towards applications that are designed directly for the medium. However, it’s a powerful enough v1 for Apple’s affluent market base to buy in and create a giant sucking force of demand to attract the best developers in coming years.
(I had predicted the device would mostly be about in-home use, which turned out to be correct, but the keynote also included footage of airplane and hotel usage, which shows Apple wanting to emphasise the portability benefit.)
Meta refreshed its Ray-Ban smart glasses and they appear to be gaining traction. The obvious comparison, given their camera mode, is to Google Glass a decade prior, but society is more ready for cranium-mounted streaming nowadays and companies are more careful about how they design and message these devices. The glasses highlight the importance of audio for augmented reality. The technology is not yet practical for augmented vision as you move around the world, but recent AI developments endow audio intereactions with super powers. Being able to look at something and talk to your assistant about it, or just having Her-like conversations as you move through the world, is imminent.
Apple and Meta’s products both signal a shift from virtual reality to augmented reality. Or what we might call “enhanced reality” (ER) if we’re being pedantic, since Vision Pro uses cameras to show your surroundings. So far, VR has mostly been a niche gaming market. Even in a post-pandemic world of remote work, there’s been little interest in virtual meetings or other forms of productivity usage on Oculus et al.
It’s likely Apple and Meta will converge on their vision, recapitulating Google’s Glass vision of always-on glasses that overlay imagery onto the wearer’s field of vision, as well as conducting conversations like a squad of guardian angels riding on the wearer’s shoulders. The direction for the next few years is therefore away from VR, but also working towards VR for the long term. These devices will be VR-ready (Vision Pro already is) and will pave the way for a gradual rise in VR applications. Killer apps will sureely emerge along the way, especially social ones that create a viral loop of adoption, and eventually VR will achieve critical mass along with ER.
LK-99 and nuclear fusion reminded us to solve hard problems
The LK-99 story lit up the internet as quickly as it died down, its half-life proving to be as short as [the Barbenheimer phenomen]. One minute we were promised superconductive properties that would short-circuit the economy by decades, the next minute it was a nothingburger that failed to replicate across many frenzied attempts.
That said, it was a timely reminder, as the growth-sector economy begins to rebound, that tech is about more than pumping out the Nth addictive game, payment processor, or SaaS clone. There are hard problems to be solved in fields such as energy, climate, computing hardware, space, robotics.
All of the above made considerable progress in 2023, especially energy. Nuclear fusion researchers were able to generate [a net energy increase]. While that’s far from achieving it in production, there are several startups actively pursuing the goal of commercial fusion by the 2030s and the US government contributed a record amount to R & D, $1.4 billion.
The saddening geopolitical conflicts of 2022-2023 put more immediate pressure on energy production. A (dim) silver lining of these crises has been a more sensible attitude towards nuclear fission, which has long been deviled by FUD campaigns. Adding to the argument, one of the main detractors has been the immense scale of reactor projects - leading to boondoggle projects - and this has been alleviated by the emergence of modular reactors that can deliver value faster, lower the risks, and help societies build up long term skills to sustain the industry.
Social media fragmented, then merged
Elon Musk continued to play main character in 2023, with his public persona now firmly tethered to the platform he reluctantly acquired in late-2022. His tenure at, known as Twitter until he rebranded it this year, has been marked by intermittent waves of exodus, each triggered by a specific event such as an outage or an outrage.
I felt the departure of geopolitical strategist Peter Zeihan epitomized the situation well, simply because he’s not known as a bleeding-heart liberal, Musk hater, or open-source enthusiast, those being some of the main demographics who left the platform early on. Zeihan fundamentally had practical concerns with the utility he was getting from the app. The algorithm broke. Instead of showing content relevant to his interests, it was now overwhelmed with toxic messages and crypto shilling from the anonymous accounts who had paid $7.99 a month to amplify their reach. Furthermore, despite being an authority figure with a huge following, he was now unable to reach out to seek information from other authority figures. They, too, had presumably left the platform or been bombarded by noise.
In the early days of X 2.0, there was no clear place to go to. Mastodon was the main choice, but it’s a terrible user experience with a community that’s largely hostile to algorithmic recommendations. Expecting regular users to curate their own feed and find enough value from daily updates is a recipe for disaster. Just ask Google Plus how micromanging circles went. Bluesky then gained some interest and was much more Twitter-like, offtering an algorithm and hiding its distributed nature behind a simple onboarding exeprience. However, it stayed in closed beta far too long and didn’t rise to critical mass. Then came Threads.
Meta launched Threads in mid-2023. Building on Instagram probably helped them to get this up and running quickly, but more importantly it removed much of the friction for new users. They cleverly allowed users to follow Instagram contacts before those contacts had even signed up for threads. They relied heavily on the algorithm to show relevant results, solving the coldstart problem more eloquently than the other X alternatives, and the design was clean and intuitive and - for now - ad-free. Of course, all of this was coming from the unfair advantage of being one of the biggest companies in the world, but it worked regardless. And while the FTC continued to come down hard on acquisitions in 2023, they’ve said nothing about companies subsidising new product development to outrun the competition, so Meta is acting well within the rules here.
Threads quickly grew to tens of millions of users, far eclipsing the alternatives combined, and has become the de-facto X alternative. Triumphant claims of X’s demise are greatly exaggerated, as X remains the place where real-time conversations are happening and still has the active movers and shakers in many verticals, as the November OpenAI drama) demonstrated, with dozens of employees weighing in on X and crickets from them on Threads. However, it’s firmly put up sticks as the obvious alternative and continues to see an inflow of user every time X or Musk misfires.
So that’s a roundup of tech stories that interested me in 2023. As you’ve seen from my recent Jekyll - CodeSpaces - Github Pages post, I’ve been working to make blogging faster and more productive around here and I now have an Obsidian publishing rig setup as part of that effort. Stay tuned for a 2024 predictions post shortly. Wishing you and yours a happy new year and a magic 2024.