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AI, the fourth personal computing revolution

I’ve had to good fortune to see up close, and be involved in my own little way, in four transformative moments in technology over the last four decades.

  • As a young teenager, the early PC era (we called them microcomputers back then) like the Apple II, Apricot, Acorn and TRS-80 (my own first computer)
  • In my early career, the Web
  • In my mid-career, mobile
  • and now, later (but hopefully not at the end just yet) career, generative AI

AI, or at least its promise, has of course been there this whole time. It was an interest in AI that motivated me to study computer science, though the technologies and promise of AI have changed profoundly since the 1980s.

And over that 40 year period, AI has seen several moments when that long anticipated promise seemed at hand, only for the hype to dissipate. “AI winters” these periods have been called, when interest (and funding) for AI wanes, after a brief period of excitement.

This time, though, I think there is something more substantial. No, we don’t have sentient, conscious machines, or even anything remotely like Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). Perhaps we never will. But right now, across so many professions and industries–from visual design to music, software development, marketing, law, and beyond–generative AI is having a demonstrable impact.

But these are very early days, and while the rate of change is rapid, the opportunities are still extraordinary.

Last night I hosted a panel of creative professionals to discuss the challenges and opportunities of these technologies. With just a few days notice, we had a full house of enthusiastic attendees–photographers, visual designers, architects–really engaged in the conversation.

Why do I feel so convinced that there’s something really there this time? First there’s my own use and exploration of these technologies, which has delivered real value, from transcription to summarisation to pair programming. But it’s this enthusiasm I am seeing, and not just from developers, but across a whole range of professions, from law to the creative industries, to marketing and more that suggests this time, it might stick.

It brings to mind the sort of excitement and engagement I remember from those early PC days, and the early days of the Web. A diverse array of people really interested in the possibility of these technologies, not necessarily commercially, but in a less tangible, more exploratory way. As with the early PC and Web, I am sure those tangible, professional and commercial benefits will emerge.

But right now so much of the focus is on experimentation, exploration. At the risk of sounding overly optimistic it’s a time of promise. And opportunity.

So regardless of where you are in your career, these moments don’t come along very often, take it from me. You don’t have to drop everything–just set aside a little time to experiment and explore, and start thinking about how you can benefit from these technologies in your work right now.

And so, (re) introducing Web Directions AI

Back in 2017 and 2018 we put together two AI focussed conferences, as some early (though it turned out premature) green shoots, particularly in relation to conversational AI, off the back of the enthusiasm for Alexa, Siri and similar voice agents, and with IBM Watson gaining a lot of (perhaps a little premature) attention.

And while we’ll be covering this topic in detail at Web Directions Summit later in the year, with the energy and innovation happening in this area right now, we’ve decided to again organise a one-day, stand alone AI focussed conference, in Sydney, in early July. Stay tuned for all the details, but why not get on the mailing list for more information, and we have CFPs open so if this is an area you’re working in, we’d love to hear from you!

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Phil Whitehouse General Manager, DT Sydney