How spreadsheets can prepare us for artificial intelligence

In recent months, it’s been hard to ignore recent advances in artificial intelligence (AI). Various content-generating AI technologies have been improving rapidly. Perhaps most prominent was ChatGPT and its family of personal chat companions, who write computer code, compose short essays, and respond to almost any request – albeit not always correctly. Other recently improved AIs can use text prompts to generate almost any type of image or artificially replicate celebrity voices. Across these programs, people have achieved a variety of outcomes that are by turns wondrous, bewildering, and stupid.

It’s hard to say what lies ahead for these platforms, which may or may not be accelerating at unimaginably high speeds. Advances over the past year have been impressive and rapid, while attracting both significant public interest and significant private investment in AI. Most of those involved in making predictions about AI will inevitably be wrong – leading AI researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky has warned that “by far the greatest danger of artificial intelligence is that people will conclude too soon that they understand.”

However, we can try to broadly anticipate how AI could reshape the world we live in. And for that, let’s look at the history of today’s most boring digital technology: the spreadsheet.

I use digital spreadsheets for a lot of things. I’ve used them for school homework, to track volunteer registrations, and to look up government data. Each week, The Mac Weekly uses Google Sheets to match the pages of the print edition. As a tool, spreadsheets are often helpful and occasionally irreplaceable.

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Of course, it didn’t always work that way. In 1984, journalist Steven Levy wrote a story for Harper’s about the birth of spreadsheets in modern business. In the early 1980s, people developed flashy programs on fat computers that offered a revolutionary change: performing calculations on rows and columns of numbers. Two changes occurred with this new technology: previously mundane activities became silly, and people began to interact with the world in new ways. Each of these changes gives us a little lens to anticipate AI.

Before the 1980s, accountants and other business workers worked with a sinister tool called “ledgers.” When accountants wanted to perform various business calculations, they would handwrite a spreadsheet — like Excel, but on pen and paper. Instead of using handy spreadsheet formulas, they would use calculators to calculate each individual total or balance. If just one or two of the inputs change — say, a monthly expense becomes cheaper or bank terms change — an accountant would have to recalculate all the resulting values ​​by hand.

Digital spreadsheets made such manual operations completely useless. Instead of taking days to complete a ledger sheet and then repeating it the next month with new information, calculations could be made and manipulated in minutes. Tasks that had long been part of everyday business suddenly became unusable.

However, spreadsheets have not only made existing tasks more efficient and easier. As spreadsheets replaced earlier work, they also created new ways to interact with and read the world.

For example, spreadsheets allow a user to change a single number while the rest of the calculations auto-complete accordingly. As a result, people not only used this new technology to measure what is true today; They began using spreadsheets to try to make economic predictions about the future. Digital spreadsheets also made it possible to extract better insights from numbers, increasing the relative value people place on quantitative information versus qualitative insights.

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It’s hard to predict exactly how and where, but the AI ​​sure seems to be doing both. Already, it seems as if the AI ​​has brought various everyday tasks to the abyss of frivolity. Perhaps we’ll soon reconsider typical college papers or take-home exams where AI’s performance is decent at the moment and sure to improve. As AIs become better writers, programmers, and designers, mundane tasks will seem unnecessary.

As with digital spreadsheets, the displacement of some jobs and tasks by AI will likely not leave us with no jobs but with new and different tasks instead. AI will become more powerful and more institutions will adopt it, creating unfamiliar ways of approaching tasks and bringing new forms of readability into our world. As media theorist Marshall McLuhan wrote, “It is the medium that shapes and controls the range and form of human association and action.” Because of the nature of these changes, they are impossible to predict precisely, and they will certainly occur in both beneficial and negative ways occur in a harmful manner.

The analogy from spreadsheets to AI doesn’t give us a full picture of the potential shifts. AI already seems to be much more transformative than spreadsheets and to implement their transformation much faster. In the next few years, we may experience what journalist Ezra Klein calls “the difficulty of living in exponential time.” At the current pace of technological development, we may soon outrun our existing institutions—both our hardcoded rules and our soft forms of social organization—leaving us with a more uncertain and stranger world.

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Even more obscure is that there is another technology that we may also find analogous to AI: the atomic bomb. As neuroscientist Erik Hoel recently wrote, human society has not encountered very many situations in which there has been a real risk of total human annihilation – perhaps just the atomic bomb or climate change. In a 2022 survey, a poll of leading AI researchers gave a median prediction of a 10% chance that AI would cause human extinction. Not only are these machines powerful and evolving at a dizzying pace, but governments and corporations fund them with far more incentive to win the technological race than to carefully weigh societal costs and benefits.

Hopefully stories of technological advances and societal adjustments can help us prepare for what lies ahead, but advances in AI will still work in strange and unexpected ways. Nothing is inevitable – our political and economic conditions have tremendous power to shape AI and its impact. But be prepared that it will shape us back.