AI Lowers the Cost of Intelligence — What About its Value?
The cost of intelligence will soon decline rapidly according to OpenAI’s CEO, Sam Altman. That sounds like good news considering how often…
The cost of intelligence will soon decline rapidly according to OpenAI’s CEO, Sam Altman. That sounds like good news considering how often the world seems in short supply. But for something as profoundly powerful, fast-moving, and paradigm-shifting as artificial intelligence (AI), taking a closer look at the potential implications of dramatically cheaper intelligence is a good idea.
Implied in Altman’s prediction is an outcome in which more people have more access to work products which, until now, required human intelligence to create. Health and education are two fields I’ve heard mentioned as early potential beneficiaries of cheaper intelligence.
The potential utility of low-cost intelligence
Many are excited about the possibility of AI assisting doctors and medical professionals in real time as they provide patient care. Imagine an online therapy session with a human therapist who, on their side of the call, sees suggested follow-up questions to ask based on the patient’s dialogue, trend analysis from previous sessions, and alerts if the patient is showing signs of danger.
If you can imagine that, take it a step further by removing the human therapist. There are about 750,000 licensed mental health professionals in the U.S. to serve 300 million people who could potentially benefit from trained mental health support. For the cost of a video streaming service, anyone with an internet connection could have mental health support when a human therapist isn’t available, or perhaps, required.
Now imagine roaming the halls of a typical middle or high school and you observe many of the students glued to their phones, all engaging with the same app. No, not TikTok, but an AI that is some combination of tutor, mentor, and friend. This app has a familiar chat interface and a lively avatar that gives a student a character to befriend. Students can ask the AI for help with any conceivable academic subject and it will explain it to them with rich media formats and tireless patience. They can also confide in their AI friend or ask it for help navigating the challenging social and emotional terrain of adolescence.
Again, we know millions of young people are struggling through childhood and early adulthood because they lack adequate support at home, at school, or both. Expanding access to skillful, attentive, and caring AI mentorship is another optimistic scenario for low-cost intelligent software.
When good things become too cheap
I doubt anyone reading this believes all outcomes of cheaper intelligence will be good or even net positive. While it’s often the case that making a good thing cheaper and more accessible is, itself, a good thing, we also have examples of when making something too cheap becomes a problem.
Consider food. For most of human history, food was expensive, meaning humans had to spend a lot of energy to procure enough to eat. When I lived in the Marshall Islands we spearfished, which was a lot of work for the relatively small amount of caloric energy we gained from eating the fish we caught. I lost a lot of weight that year.
Food has become much cheaper and more accessible than it was for our ancestors. One result of that is the cheapest, most addictive, and most widely available foods are causing enormous societal health problems wherever they are prevalent.
This is happening because we’ve taken for granted the most fundamental value of food as fuel for our bodies. New values, like taste and profit, have taken over to guide modern food trends. This creates a delicious variety of novel dining experiences, and it can bring food into conflict with its original purpose of sustenance. As the burden to acquire it drops, the value of food becomes ever more subjective and contextual. I think something similar will happen as the cost of intelligence goes down and we take it for granted.
The correlation between cost and value
The correlation seems to be that as the cost of commodities come down (and accessibility goes up), value fragments. The lowering of the cost of intelligence will fragment its value in our collective consciousness.
In some situations, such as expanding access to high-quality mental health support and educational resources, low-cost AI will offer very high value.
According to this article by Bessemer Venture Partners, “Today, less than 1% of online content is generated using AI. Within the next ten years, we predict that at least 50% of online content will be generated by or augmented by AI.”
In 10 years time, the total amount of online content will be many times what it is today, meaning 50% AI-generated content is not only proportionally much greater, but also exponentially more content by scale. What happens to the value of content in such a landscape? To overlay my earlier culinary analogy, I think we’ll have some sublime food for thought, and also a lot of ‘chips, candy, and soda’.
This tweet by author, Kalynn Bayron, which received almost 100K likes in a single day, captures the concern from the perspective of many creative artists, who are understandably skeptical about the incentives driving the rise of generative AI. In her tweet I hear very fair questions about the alignment of our values as human beings, and those guiding us into a new era in technology.
Connecting to the fundamental value of intelligence
We’re still re-learning how to eat. Our ancestors were unlikely to encounter much, if any, unhealthy food. For us, we’re in the process of reconstructing our diets with more intention to limit the amount of unhealthy food we consume, and to increase our healthy food intake by carefully scrutinizing ingredients and sources.
Similarly, I think we’re going to have to re-learn how we consume intelligent content. Just like food, we’re going to have to develop the, well, intelligence to discern and appreciate highly valuable instances of human and AI-generated work.
Inherent to the fundamental value of intelligence is understanding. When I become more emotionally intelligent, it means I am better able to understand my inner emotional experience, and that of others. By listening to great works of music or being in the presence of artistic masterpieces, the genius of the artists responsible for them helps me to grasp more fully what it means to be human.
In the months and years to come, as AI brings low-cost intelligent capabilities to our fingertips, I’ll be scanning the world of information as I do the grocery store, looking out for my healthy staples and occasional indulgences. I’ll also remind myself it’s not the cost of intelligence that counts, but its value as my gateway to understanding.