Why this round of tech optimism feels different

One of my most joyous technology memories concerns Project Origami. The effort from Microsoft, Intel and others launched ultra-mobile PCs, or UMPCs. The devices, akin to squeezing a full Windows machine into something about the size of a midrange iPad, often complete with a physical keyboard, utterly fascinated me back around 2006.

At that time I had roughly zero money, so buying one of the devices was entirely out of the question. But, while visiting an electronics store with my father after the first round of UMPCs came out — we were probably hunting up a piece of gear for his business — I walked down one aisle of computing hardware, and, to my astonishment, I found a promotional endcap of UMPC devices. I could use the devices that I had spent so much time nerding out over. It was a bit like meeting a celebrity to my teenaged self. I was bewitched.

I’ve had other moments of pure tech bliss in my life: Back in high school when my friends and I realized that thanks to Gmail’s generous storage limits and my school’s reasonable internet, we could ditch USB sticks entirely and just email files to one another from across the same table. It felt like magic, to use bits instead of anything that we had to carry in our pocket.

Technology has a simply beautiful way of taking your breath away at times, showing you that there is a new shortcut or new way of thinking that is now before you that was previously entirely occluded. This is how the iPhone launch felt, to highlight a well-known example of the phenomenon.

Not much since then has given me the same jolt. Perhaps when I fell in love with Twitter, realizing in an instant that I just tweet as much as I wanted, and no one could stop me; the first moment I had my own blog on the internet and I was freed from any sort of publishing constraint.

The instances when tech takes the floor out from underneath you are rare and are usually the moments when things change. Once the new thing comes, it takes off like a rocket let loose from the Earth. Internet browsers were like this, bringing a graphical interface to interconnected information. I presume that the first PC was similar, though that predates my memories. (My colleague Ron Miller has some notes on that here.)

The recent barrage of AI tools and services feels like a moment in which tech changed our world in a similar fashion. From early testing to more serious trials, I’ve found modern AI in the form of large language models to be absolutely electric. I am hardly alone. You can find folks using ChatGPT and similar services all around the internet, even in places that range far from the usual tech-forward audiences. Kids are using it. Companies are figuring out how to put it to work. And a host of systems that once functioned pretty OK are now racing to keep up, things like copyright and anti-plagiarism technology in schools.

The sheer potential for new and change that recent AI breakthroughs bring with themselves is staggering. It’s also leading to a boom in what I consider tech-positive thinking. Folks think the new tool is rad and are adapting it to their needs. This is how a niche tool becomes a norm.

This new optimism may feel somewhat surprising: After all, didn’t we just live through a period of time when Big Tech companies and startups either earned or had access to more capital than ever in history? Yes, and we didn’t get the same sort of step-function change to our capabilities out of the bargain.

What’s different about the AI rush that we’re living through today in contrast to the software and crypto booms we just lived through? Two key things: accessibility and a lack of financialization.

Anyone can quickly get up to speed using ChatGPT or related tools, meaning that their time to value is essentially zero. Even more, with APIs and other programming tools, the AI services of today appear to be pretty damn extensible and embeddable. They will go where we want them to and do a lot of stuff that we want them to do. Even better: They are cheap.

The SaaS wave was a feasting period for me, as I got to cover a blizzard of tech IPOs built on the back of recurring software revenues. But by and large, the tech underlying those companies wasn’t shockingly fresh. Instead, the tech industry took a well-established business playbook that was software-enabled, or powered, and took it to new markets. That was good business but hardly a technology revolution.

The crypto boom is inherently financial, with its focus on blockchains paying for their upkeep in the form of tokens or other rewards, which require a liquid market to have value. The result is a great playground for my childhood Libertarian politics and lifelong love of economics, but it’s not a place today where everyone can show up and have fun. Its power, such as it is, is still too tricky to reach and often too expensive.

AI today, in contrast, is consumer-ready and free or seemingly rather inexpensive. Even better, with tech giants battling one another over making the best tools, there’s a reasonable chance that the new stuff will stay cheap.

Not all is sunny. I am worried that some AI stuff that we are currently seeing is predicated on resource bases that startups cannot compete with; it would be a bummer if a large portion of the upside to new AI tooling was collected by companies already worth trillions. Perhaps a startup or three will be able to combat the majors with something competitive, and competitively priced.

All the same it’s never a bad time when the sky cracks open and new rays of optimism shine down on our cynical and exhausted selves. Here’s to a better future, one in which we’re released from one more tranche of quotidian labor so that we can focus on things more important.