Agent of Chaos

There’s a scene in The Dark Knight, where Bruce Wayne is talking with Alfred Pennyworth, his butler and trusted advisor, about the escalation of organized crime and the emergence of the Joker. Always one to dole out wisdom through harsh truths (“Why do we fall, Master Bruce?”), Alfred responds that through his alter ego, Batman, Bruce is to blame for the chaos that has engulfed Gotham City:

Bruce: Targeting me won’t get their money back. I knew the mob wouldn’t go down without a fight, but this is different. They crossed the line.

Alfred: You crossed the line first, sir. You squeezed them, you hammered them to the point of desperation. And in their desperation, they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand.

This morning, as I was reflecting with a colleague and friend on the exponential surge of AI across the tech landscape, we squared off about the role of Microsoft and Google in all this. He observed that Google has stated they’ve had AI in their pocket for years — in fact, they were instrumental in developing many of the core technologies and algorithms on which tools like Chat GPT have been built — but they have always resisted opening Pandora’s Box and letting it loose on a world that was not remotely ready for it.

Surely you understand how hearing that opinion must be reconciled with the perspective that just like Microsoft before them, Google is a juggernaut that is primarily preoccupied with protecting their bottom line. And for the entirety of their 25-year existence, that revenue has been cultivated from the lucrative search advertising business.

This point cannot be overstated: Google is an advertising company. For them, technology is a side business. The Pixel smartphone in your hand, the Google Assistant that reminds you about next appointment, the Google Maps that help you get to your vacation destination, the Google Drive that stores your important files and photos, the YouTube that babysits your kids…all of it exists to drive exactly one thing: search advertising. To Google, you are a source of data, which they can use to target ads. Y’know, to make money. For such a complicated machine, it’s pretty simple, actually.

So, for Google to claim that they’ve just been looking out for the good of humanity by holding back innovation in the AI-powered search space is, frankly, laughable. When AI is introduced as a new variable, it throws Google’s search ad money printing machine into chaos. Of course, they’re going to downplay it.

Enter Microsoft, the company who’s been kept on the ropes by the likes of Google for years. Not just in search, where Bing remains a distant second, but in almost every facet of popular consumer technology. A decade ago, Google decided that the best way to control the personal computing space was to introduce a little chaos of their own…namely the Chrome web browser. Not satisfied with driving users to Google through toolbars and free services like Gmail and Google Calendar, they decided to just make their own browser to rival Microsoft’s then-dominant Internet Explorer. And then came Google Docs. And then Google Drive. And then Android. And then Google Maps. And then Google Assistant. And then Chromebooks running Chrome OS. By the mid-2010’s, Google was such a dominant presence in personal and mobile computing that they were able to effectively kill Windows Phone (later Windows 10 Mobile) in the cradle by outright refusing to develop apps for it and by encouraging other third-party developers to ignore the platform as well. In 2018, recognizing they were no longer able to compete with the dominance of Chrome, Microsoft even switched their own Edge browser (the spiritual successor to Internet Explorer) over to Google’s open-source Chromium engine to ensure compatibility and a seat at the table for evolving web standards moving forward.

Is it any wonder that, when the opportunity came to be on the forefront of an exciting, innovative technology and to undercut one of their biggest rivals at the same time, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella gleefully announced that Chat GPT technology would be deeply integrated into every product across their entire Microsoft 365 stack?

See, losing big on consumer technology over the past decade and facing a dwindling market share on multiple fronts forced Microsoft to pivot into exploring new revenue streams, such as cloud computing. And to diversify, they’ve also invested heavily in startups like OpenAI, creator of Chat GPT; in fact, Microsoft currently owns a 49% stake in the company.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if an experience is truly historical until long after it’s over.

Robert Orben (maybe?)

We may not fully appreciate the capabilities of AI until much further down the road. According to Bing Chat, the renowned humorist Robert Orben once said, “Sometimes it’s hard to tell if an experience is truly historical until long after it’s over.”

Except he didn’t. Bing Chat hallucinated that result following an extended discussion with me, in which I challenged it through prompts to find a quote about “you don’t know it’s history when you’re living through it.” But it gave me that answer with amazing confidence:

Bing Chat even provided a very authoritative citation to its source, which as far as I can tell, doesn’t include any reference to that quote. Instead, it’s a quote from Dr. Seuss about recognizing the importance of a moment only after it becomes a memory. Equally poignant, perhaps, but hardly accurate. As far as I could tell, Orben never said anything like that.

The actual quote is “History never looks like history when you are living through it. It always looks confusing and messy, and it always looks uncomfortable.” And it’s by John W. Gardner. Guess where I found the right answer? Google search.

Here’s my point: in this scenario, Microsoft is the mob. Google is Bruce Wayne. And Chat GPT (and by extension, AI) is the Joker. While it may not want to “watch the world burn,” as Alfred suggests to Bruce in that same conversation, it doesn’t have any allegiance to either side in the larger tech rivalry, nor to the truth. It’s simply an agent of chaos.

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