AI-led brainstorming. Credit: Bing Image Creator

Altman, Ive, and AI — Oh, My!

Kim Bellard

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Earlier this year I urged that we Throw Away That Phone, arguing that the era of the smartphone should be over and that we should get on to the next big thing. Now, I don’t have any reason to think that either Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, and Jony Ive, formerly and famously of Apple and now head of design firm LoveFrom, read my article but apparently they have the same idea.

Last week The Information and then Financial Times reported that OpenAi and LoveFrom are “in advanced talks” to form a venture in order to build the “iPhone of artificial intelligence.” Softbank may fund the venture with as much as $1b. There have been brainstorming sessions, and discussions are said to be “serious,” but a final deal may still be months away. The new venture would draw on talent from all three firms.

Details are scare, as are comments from any of the three firms, but FT cites sources who suggest Mr. Altman sees “an opportunity to create a way of interacting with computers that is less reliant on screens.” which is a sentiment I heartily agree with. The Verge similarly had three sources who agreed that the goal is a “more natural and intuitive user experience.”

OpenAI’s ChatGPT took the world by storm this year, and continues to wow; last week OpenAI announced that it could now “see, speak, and hear,” offering “a new, more intuitive type of interface by allowing you to have a voice conversation or show ChatGPT what you’re talking about.” No wonder a future less reliant on screens makes sense.

“Given Ive’s involvement, it’s most likely to be some sort of consumer device, like a reimagined phone,” write Jessica Lessin and Stephanie Palazzolo for The Information. “One possibility is OpenAI is building its own operating system… Imagine an AI-native operating system that could generate apps in real-time based on what it believes its user needs, or one that listens to nearby conversations and automatically pulls up relevant information for its user.”

I sure hope we wouldn’t get just a “reimagined smartphone.” Carrying around a tiny computer with a screen seems so 1990’s, or at least so 2007. In the soon-to-be world of ambient computing and virtual displays, as I discussed before, the mobile phone will soon be an outdated concept entirely.

The New York Times speculates that the initiative may be as much about control as it is innovation, saying:

One reason Mr. Altman may be determined to develop his own device is to avoid having OpenAI depend on Apple or Google’s Android for distribution. Relying on other platforms has challenged tech giants, such as Facebook and Amazon, because Apple and Google take a cut of sales across their platform. Apple also has introduced privacy limits, which cut into advertising sales.

Several tech outlets reporting on the talks noted that there is a long list of software companies with a rather dismal record when trying to shift to hardware. Ars Technica quotes former Microsoft Windows Division President Steven Sinofsky: “”Anyone can build a phone. Watching Google and Microsoft should be good evidence that few can distribute one.” TechCrunch says: “But hardware is a tricky business. OpenAI knows this well,” mentioning the robotics research division it shut down in 2021 due to “major technical difficulties.”

What I’m wondering is if we really need Mr. Ive or the OpenAI team at all. Perhaps you haven’t been paying attention to the work being done at Wharton on AI, but Wharton professors Christian Terwiesch and Karl Ulrich, former Wharton graduate student Lennart Meincke, and Cornell Tech professor Karan Girotra ran an entrepreneurial competition between Wharton MBA students and ChatGPT — and ChatGPT won.

No wonder the students are dismayed. Credit: Bing Image Creator

“I was really blown away by the quality of the results,” Professor Terwiesch said. “I had naively believed that creative work would be the last area in which we humans would be superior at solving problems … so we set up this horse race of man versus machine.” ChatGPT not only produced more ideas, but vastly outperformed students in ideas that were rated “exceptional.” Quantity and quality of ideas.

Their three takeaways are:

First, generative AI has brought a new source of ideas to the world.

Second, the bottleneck for the early phases of the innovation process in organizations now shifts from generating ideas to evaluating ideas.

Finally, rather than thinking about a competition between humans and machines, we should find a way in which the two work together.

Another new study, in Scientific Reports, found that, yes, chatbots outperformed most humans when “asked to generate uncommon and creative uses for everyday objects,” but “the best human ideas still matched or exceed those of the chatbots.” I guess we can breathe a (temporary) sigh of relief, but I have to worry about the quality of those Wharton MBA students.

The authors of the latter study cautioned:

However, the AI technology is rapidly developing and the results may be different after half year. On basis of the present study, the clearest weakness in humans’ performance lies in the relatively high proportion of poor-quality ideas, which were absent in chatbots’ responses.

The Wall Street Journal’s Christophe Mims warns we’re not going to be able to avoid or ignore AI, in either our personal or professional lives: “Soon, most of us will use tools like these, even if indirectly, unless we want to risk falling behind.” Along the lines of what Messrs. Altman and Ive may be hoping, Mr. Mimms speculates: “Another way generative AI could make itself impossible to avoid: by becoming the default interface for information retrieved from the internet, and within companies.”

The moral of the story is that, if you’re looking for new ideas, and the best ideas, you better be using AI. And soon, those ideas may come from the AI alone.

I usually try to link the topic of my articles to healthcare, however tenuously, and this one shouldn’t need much elaboration. Healthcare may or may not need “the iPhone of artificial intelligence,” but it needs AI built into almost everything it does. It also badly needs new ideas and serious innovation, and failing to use AI to generate those harms all of us.

AI is no longer science fiction. It is the future, but it is now also the present — in our personal lives, in healthcare, and everywhere else. I wish Messrs. Altman and Ive the best of luck, but what they’re doing should be the norm, not the exception.

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Kim Bellard

Curious about many things, some of which I write about — usually health care, innovation, technology, or public policy. Never stop asking “why” or “why not”!