Twenty twenty-three's technology news has been… a little insane. We’ve seen some incredible tech developments, as well as many approaches to regulatory reform and at least a few tech sagas.
Surely, 2023 must be the year of AI. It’s the year we realised AI stopped being in the future and arrived in our here and now.
The year of AI started with ChatGPT building from 0 to 100 million users after just two months of operation and is now wrapping up with Australia’s ‘AI month’ (by the CSIRO), which ends in mid-December and showcases Australian industry, government and academic AI developments.
There has been a lot in between. We have seen discussion about what AI is and isn’t and witnessed immense hyperbole about what it will mean for society, including questioning the very future of humanity.
This year saw myriad efforts to regulate AI, from the Biden administration’s Executive Order on the Safe, Secure, and Trustworthy Development and Use of AI to the EU AI Act. Multilateral forums have tried their hands at AI principles and regulations, from the UK-hosted Bletchley Park AI Safety Summit to the G7 Leaders’ Statement on the Hiroshima AI Process, while AI was a key topic on the international stage, including ASEAN, the Quad and AUKUS.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, national responses trumped multilateral announcements when it came to depth and detail on AI regulation, including the more substantive US Executive Order on AI. Many nations formally supported an agreement on the Guardrails on Military use of AI, as it was observed on the battlefield in the Russian-Ukrainian Conflict and in the way Israel is targeting Hamas.
Then there was the speed of diffusion. Consumer technologies spread through society at an unprecedented rate. Threads broke the ChatGPT record to become the fastest-growing app ever, gaining over 100 million users in less than a week. Before that, TikTok held the record, reaching the mark in nine months, beating the years and nearly decade it took technologies like the internet, phone and LinkedIn.
In November, it was announced that ChatGPT now has 100 million weekly active users, and is used by two million developers, including over 90 per cent of Fortune 500 companies. Yet, this announcement was rapidly followed by a chaotic four-day stoush between OpenAI CEO Sam Altman and the board, which I’ve dubbed the Sam Altman Saga.
OpenAI’s board sacked CEO and co-founder Sam Altman, for not being ‘consistently candid.’ Co-founder Greg Brockman was removed as chair of the board and resigned from OpenAI. One interim CEO lasted less than 48 hours and another was installed as Microsoft offered Altman and Brockman and their unnamed colleagues a place within the company. More than 90 per cent of OpenAI employees signed a letter to the board threatening to quit. Days later, Altman was back as CEO.
The entire Sam Altman Saga was reported in real-time on X (formerly Twitter) showcasing that, despite the state propaganda and endless bots, the platform retains some utility.
October 2023 marked a year of Musk ownership of Twitter/X, which resulted in wiping out US$4billion-$20 billion in value and committing ‘one of the biggest rebrand failures of all time.’ X was removed from Australia’s voluntary Code of Practice on Disinformation and Misinformation having removed the mechanism for reporting misinformation posted on its platform.
Musk also did a bunch of other crazy stuff.
He endorsed an antisemitic conspiracy theory and on November 30 told Disney CEO Bob Iger — and other fleeing advertisers — not to advertise on X using expletives. The move could see a loss of US$75 million in advertising revenue by the end of the year as dozens of major brands pause their marketing campaigns. While his Brain-Computer Interface company, Neuralink, was controversially approved for human trials, Musk ended the year with deliveries of the long-awaited Tesla Cybertruck — albeit with lower range and higher prices than promised.
Cyber security has dominated the Australian landscape, with abundant cyber security incidents as well as the release of the 2023–2030 Australian Cyber Security Strategy with lofty ambitions. A cyber-attack on DP World, Australia’s biggest port operator, halted operations of up to 40 per cent of the nation’s maritime freight, while an Optus outage that left millions of individuals and businesses without connectivity resulted in the CEO’s resignation.
What do we have ahead of us in tech in 2024? As Johanna Weaver and I conclude, 2024 will hopefully be the year of thinking about technology holistically. I anticipate a renewed focus on board governance, especially in the context of AI, cybersecurity and the ethical and privacy considerations arising from the implementation of technology.
In 2023, there has been broad recognition that there is no AI without Big Tech. With few exceptions, every start-up, new entrant, and even AI research lab is dependent on the computing infrastructure of Microsoft, Amazon, and Google to train their systems, and for market reach to deploy and sell their AI products. I suspect then that 2024 will bring renewed vigour in understanding and challenging technological dependence, from a variety of perspectives, including national security.
With more than 50 per cent of the world expected to hold an election in 2024, mis- and dis-information will continue to be a huge challenge. Sadly, the outlook for 2024 doesn’t appear great. We are witnessing what a UK author called a shift in our approach to trust in evidence and authority and US authors call the post-truth era. Undeniably, more work is needed to combat the susceptibility of our digital landscape to disinformation and interference, because global efforts to date have not worked.
There’s no doubt 2023 will be the year technology policy really entered the mainstream, and dinner table conversations, thanks to data breaches, cyber(in)security and the hype around AI. In 2024, I’m looking for a maturing of tech conversations to consider issues holistically that centre on reducing harms, embracing opportunities, and improving governance mechanisms. The stakes couldn’t be higher. How we decide to embrace opportunities, innovate, fail and recover, learn and improve will shape the decades to come.