Are You in Future Shock Yet?

by James Wallace Harris, 3/24/23

Back in 1970, a nonfiction bestseller, Future Shock by Alvin Toffler, was widely talked about but it’s little remembered today. With atomic bombs in the 1940s, ICBMs, and computers in the 1950s, manned space flight and landing on the Moon in the 1960s, LSD, hippies, the Age of Aquarius, civil rights, gay rights, feminism, as well as a yearly unfolding of new technologies, it was easy to understand why Toffler suggested the pace of change could lead society into a collective state of shock.

But if we could time travel back to 1970 we could quote Al Jolson to Alvin, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” Couldn’t we? Toffler never came close to imagining the years we’ve been living since 1970. And his book was forgotten, but I think his ideas are still valid.

Future shock finally hit me yesterday when I watched the video “‘Sparks of AGI’ – Bombshell GPT-4 Paper: Fully Read w/ 15 Revelations.”

I’ve been playing around with ChatGPT for weeks, and I knew GPT 4 was coming, but I was surprised as hell when it hit so soon. Over the past few weeks, people have been writing and reporting about using ChatGPT and the general consensus was it was impressive but because it made so many mistakes we shouldn’t get too worried. GPT 4 makes far fewer mistakes. Far fewer. But it’s fixing them fast.

Watch the video! Read the report. I’ve been waiting years for general artificial intelligence, and this isn’t it. But it’s so damn close that it doesn’t matter. Starting back in the 1950s when computer scientists first started talking about AI, they kept trying to set the bar that would prove a computer could be called intelligent. An early example was playing chess. But when a computer was built to perform one of these measures and passed, computer scientists would say that test really wasn’t a true measure of intelligence and we should try X instead. Well, we’re running out of things to equate with human-level intelligence.

Most people have expected a human-level intelligent computer would be sentient. I think GPT 4 shows that’s not true. I’m not sure anymore if any feat of human intelligence needs to be tied to sentience. All the fantastic skills we admire about our species are turning out to be skills a computer can perform.

We thought we’d trump computers with our mental skills, but it might be our physical skills that are harder to give machines. Like I said, watch the video. Computers can now write books, compose music, do mathematics, paint pictures, create movies, analyze medical mysteries, understand legal issues, ponder ethics, etc. Right now AI computers configured as robots have difficulty playing basketball, knitting, changing a diaper, and things like that. But that could change just as fast as things have been changing with cognitive creativity.

I believe most people imagined a world of intelligent machines being robots that look like us — like those we see in the movies. Well, the future never unfolds like we imagine. GPT and its kind are invisible to us, but we can easily interact with them. I don’t think science or science fiction imagined how easily that interaction would be, or how quickly it would be rolled out. Because it’s here now.

I don’t think we ever imagined how distributed AI would become. Almost anything you can think of doing, you can aid your efforts right now by getting advice and help from a GPT-type AI. Sure, there are still problems, but watch the video. There are far fewer problems than last week, and who knows how many fewer there will be next week.

Future shock is all about adapting to change. If you can’t handle the change, you’re suffering from future shock. And that’s the thing about the 1970 Toffler book. Most of us kept adapting to change no matter how fast it came. But AI is going to bring about a big change. Much bigger than the internet or computers or even the industrial revolution.

You can easily tell the difference between the people who will handle this change and those who can’t. Those that do are already using AI. They embraced it immediately. We’ve been embracing pieces of AI for years. A spelling and grammar checker is a form of AI. But this new stuff is a quantum leap over everything that’s come before. Put it to use or get left behind.

Do you know about cargo cults? Whenever an advanced society met a primitive society it doesn’t go well for primitive societies. The old cultural divide was between the educated and the uneducated. Expect new divisions. And remember Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” For many people, AI will be magic.

Right now AI can help scholars write books. Soon AI will be able to write better scholarly books than scholars. Will that mean academics giving up writing papers and books? I don’t think so. AIs, as of now, have no desires. Humans will guide them. In the near future, humans will ride jockey on AI horses.

A couple weeks ago Clarkesworld Magazine, a science fiction magazine, shut down submissions because they were being flooded with Chat-GPT-developed stories. The problem was the level of submissions was overwhelming them, but the initial shock I think for most people would be the stories would be crap. That the submitted science fiction wouldn’t be creative in a human sense. That those AI-written stories would be a cheat. But what if humans using GPT start producing science fiction stories that are better than stories only written by humans?

Are you starting to get why I’m asking you if you feel future shock yet? Be sure and watch the video.

Finally, isn’t AI just another example of human intelligence? Maybe when AIs create artificial AIs, we can call them intelligent.


16 thoughts on “Are You in Future Shock Yet?”

  1. I remember Future Shock, and two of Toffler’s other books, The Third Wave, and Previews and Premises. (I must admit I didn’t read the first two in their entirety.) I’ve often felt “future shock.” I’m not entirely comfortable with modern technology–I don’t drive, or have a cell phone. This may be strange for a fan of a future- and technologically-oriented genre like science fiction.

    1. You sound like Isaac Asimov. I don’t think he drove either. I’d love to be able to live without a car. I don’t drive very much at all anymore. Susan and I have both given up driving at night and we’re afraid of driving on the freeway.

      But Carl, I don’t see how you live without a smartphone. They are so much fun!


      1. Smartphones may be fun, but I have enough technology with my landline phone and desktop computer. I don’t know if you recall the story by Ray Bradbury, “The Murderer,” in which he predicted something like smart phones, although in his story they were more like Dick Tracy’s wrist radio.

  2. This is very scary to me. Magic? Yes, very black magic. I can see it quickly getting out of control. And don’t get me wrong. I love technology. I’ve always been an early adopter of new tech stuff. I supported Gutenberg! But this seems different somehow, like we are handing over our humanity to machines that have infinite and unknown potential.

    1. What specifically scares you, Linda?

      Like all technology, it can be used for evil, but that evil will come from the people who use it. I just don’t picture machines having it in for us.

      I think the biggest worry will be jobs. AI could take away a lot of jobs. It will be scary for young people, but I expect them to use AI to get ahead. We should be surprised by what young people will do with this power to create things we can’t imagine.

      1. It’s the being used for evil that frightens me. Can we get ahead of it to prevent malicious use? I read somewhere that ChatGPT4 can pass the bar exam in the 90th percentile. It’s looking at us in the rear view mirror.

        1. Have you considered that folks who cannot pass the bar exam in the 90th percentile maybe should not be lawyers?

          Not saying I could do so, either.

  3. Thank you for this post, and the links – they’re super helpful!

    I don’t keep up with developing tech, but once it’s out in the world I do my best to learn about it and incorporate it into my life. When it comes to this latest GPT-4 news, I can see I have some serious catching up to do.

    I especially love this from your post: “In the near future, humans will ride jockey on AI horses.” What a fantastic visual! Thanks again.

    1. Rose, AI assistants are being added to search engines and office applications. You’ll get to use them soon enough. Remember when you first used Google? It took a little practice. It will be the same with AI assistants.

      But sign up for Chat-GPT and DALL-E 2 and play with them. It’s very easy and fun. The key is learning how to phrase the right request. If you like making art try Midjourney.


  4. I think for AI to be considered conscious, or having human-like understanding, it probably needs to have feelings, emotions. Otherwise, it’s a tool, with no drive of its own. Now, I’m sure a type of drive can be mimicked without the need for emotions, but boy that sounds like a scary road to go down. Who knows what a powerful, general AI might decide to do one day?

    The reason I found this blog and signed up was because of an old post you made about humanity being doomed. I very much agree with that, and I think the fall of our species is coming far sooner than most people think. People are just way too short-sighted. One potential road to salvation, though, may end up lying in AI. I think AI could help us navigate a way into the future. I don’t see this happening, of course, unless our leaders decide to trust it, hand over control to it, or the AI essentially takes over the world as benevolent dictator.

    1. I’ve thought a lot about this, but I believe feelings and emotions come from our biology and chemistry — thus machines will never have them.

      Now AI machines will evolve cognitive states we will never comprehend because we aren’t machines.

      The question is whether or not they will ever evolve something equivalent to intent or even curiosity? We train AI on huge data sets. I guess if they ever ask for more data, like the little robot in Short Circuit Johnny 5, we’ll know if they have that quality.

      I suppose we can create mechanisms or subroutines that allow AI machines to evolve curiosity, but I think we’re beyond being able o program anything into them. These new AI are products of learning. We set up a system where they can learn, and they do the rest.

      I think we’re doomed, but can’t know for sure. But I expect, if human civilization is destroyed, it will be our fault, and not AI machines.

      I’m a big believer in black swans. I can’t imagine humanity maintaining this civilization past the year 2100, but there’s always a chance for a black swan to appear.

  5. Either I’m not in Future Shock, or I’m in denial, but I’m not particularly surprised by how things are going, generally. As far as AI is concerned, I’ve been waiting for this since I read Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress back before I was a teenager. Best handling of the idea I’ve seen lately is a series of stories on Amazon that starts with Jerry Boyd’s “Bob’s Saucer Repair.” AI as helpers and supporters. “Rednecks in Space” might give you an idea. Got badly sidetracked and rabbit holed in a Reddit thread over a negative review of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, before getting back to you. I don’t know that GPT 4 really counts, but it is a bit closer to Mycroft Holmes IV & Topper and the Pack than I’ve seen before. Though the person in the video seems to be unaware that humans were not the only tool users on the planet.

    1. My interest in intelligent machines goes back to 1966 and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I love that book because of Mike, but it does have other problems that make it hard for younger generations to accept it.

      I’ll give Bob’s Saucer Repairs a go. I just checked it out on Kindle Unlimited.

      Have you read We Are Legion, (We Are Bob) series? It’s fun.

      1. I had noticed the “other problems” among the younger readers. RAH was a dirty old man, and that was true long before his carotid artery obstruction. Personally, I prefer my porn in Braille. I have to “filter” his later works, i.e., skip long passages in his later works to get to the parts of the story that I really want to read.

        I spent a few years as a teacher’s assistant in a high school In-School Restriction class, and a few more as a teacher, K-12, social studies and then special education. I don’t see the kids of today all that different from those of my day. Mostly just as obsessed with sex as we were, and as sure that we knew better than the government or the old fools/folks.

        I keep seeing RAH portrayed as “right wing” but he wanted a one-world government, and I’m not ready for that yet, either. I believe he’d think it would work better if the One-World government was run by our government, but I’m not sure that would work at all. And I surely do not want to see such a thing run by the Chinese Communists. Nor Confucians, for that matter. But we shall see what we shall see.

        Just downloaded the first Bobiverse novel. We’ll see about that, too! Thanks!

  6. I have retained one main idea from Future Shock: that all institutions must change directions or die every sevenyears. It’s a touchstone for me every time something seemingly permanent vanishes or changes. But seven years is now an eternity in that context! Which shouldn’t shock Alvin Toffler or his readers.

  7. I had not seen this video. I still think it’s an issue of us failing a mirror test on ourselves, since Large Language Models are based on semantic statistics to create a derivative product based on what is considered the median in the knowledge base it is trained on.

    Still, worth exploring. Thank you.

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