No-code is code

Today, the release of OpenAI Codex, a new Al system that translates natural language to code, marks the beginning of a shift in how computer software is written.

Over the past few years, there’s been growing talk about “no code” platforms, but this is no new phenomenon. The reality is, ever since the first programmable devices, computer scientists have regularly developed breakthroughs in how we “code” computer software.

The first computers were programmed with switches or punch cards, until the keyboard was invented. Coding became a matter of typing numbers or machine language, until Grace Hopper invented the modern compiler and the COBOL language, ushering in decades of innovation in programming languages and platforms. Languages like Fortran, Pascal, C, Java and Python evolved in a progression, where the newest language (built using an older language) enabled programmers to “code” using increasingly more human language.

Alongside languages, we’ve seen the evolution of “no-code” platforms — including Microsoft Excel, the 1980s granddaddy of no-code — that empower people to program computers in a visual interface, whether in school or in the workplace. Anytime you write a formula in a spreadsheet, or when you drag a block of code on or Scratch, you’re programming, or “coding,” a computer. “No code” is code. Every decade, a breakthrough innovation makes it easier to write code so that the old way of coding is replaced by the new.

Does this mean coding is dead? No! It doesn’t replace the need for a programmer to understand code. It means coding just got much easier, higher impact and thus more important.

This brings us to today’s announcement. Today, OpenAl announced OpenAI Codex, an entirely new way to “write code” in the natural English language. A computer programmer can now use English to describe what they want their software to do, and OpenAl’s generative Al model will automatically generate the corresponding computer code, in your choice of programming language. This is what we’ve always wanted — for computers to understand what we want them to do, and then do it, without having to go through a complex intermediary like a programming language.

But this is not an end, it is a beginning. With Al-generated code, one can imagine an evolution in every programming tool, in every programming class, and a Cambrian explosion of new software. Does this mean coding is dead? No! It doesn’t replace the need for a programmer to understand code. It means coding just got much easier, higher impact and thus more important, just as when punch cards were replaced by keyboards, or when Grace Hopper invented the compiler.

In fact, the demand for software today is greater than ever and will only continue to grow. As this technology evolves, Al will play a greater role in generating code, which will multiply the productivity and impact of computer scientists, and will make this field accessible to more and more computer programmers.

There are already tools that let you program using only drag-and-drop, or to write code using your voice. Improvements in these technologies and new tools, like OpenAI Codex, will increasingly democratize the ability to create software. As a result, the amount of code — and the number of coders — in the world will increase.

This also means that learning how to program — in a new way — is more important than ever. Learning to code can unlock doors to opportunity and also help solve global problems. As it becomes easier and more accessible to create software, we should give every student in every school the fundamental knowledge to not only be a user of technology but also a creator.