Chatbots have existed in some way since as far back as the 1960s. But there's something about ChatGPT that's beguiled investors, tech companies and the general public since its arrival late last year.
The internet already abounds with ideas for how to put ChatGPT's human-like dialogue to use, from creating custom chatbots to help fight traffic tickets to creating workout and diet plans.
The bigger question, however, is whether ChatGPT (or more accurately, the tech that powers it) will have the same sweeping influence as other breakthrough technologies of our generation, like the iPhone, Google search and Amazon Alexa.
It'll likely be years before we have an answer to that question. But in 2023, artificial intelligence experts expect to see a wave of new products, apps and services powered by the tech behind ChatGPT. It could change the way we interact with customer service chatbots, voice-enabled virtual assistants like Alexa or Siri, search engines and even your email inbox.
"I would say, within six months or so, we're going to see a huge step-up in the conversational capabilities of chatbots and voice assistants," said Oren Etzioni, adviser and board member of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence.
ChatGPT's potential impact on the way we work is already dominating headlines in 2023. Greg Brockman, president and co-founder of OpenAI, said in a Jan. 10 tweet that a professional paid version of ChatGPT with faster performance is in the works. Microsoft, an investor in ChatGPT's creator OpenAI, is reportedly looking to incorporate the tech into Bing, Outlook, Word and PowerPoint, according to reports from The Information. The New York City Department of Education has blocked access to ChatGPT on school devices over "concerns about negative impacts on student learning." And OpenAI is discussing a tender offer that would value the company at about $29 billion, potentially making it one of the most valuable US startups, according to The Wall Street Journal.
"There's a hype cycle to things, and obviously this has captured the imagination right now," said Michael Chui, a partner at the McKinsey Global Institute. "But behind a hype cycle often [are] advancements that eventually get embedded into real use cases in business. And that has already begun."
ChatGPT: What it is and how it works
ChatGPT is a free chatbot that's available online as a research preview, which OpenAI says will allow the system to learn from real-world use. You can ask ChatGPT straightforward queries like "Show me healthy dinner ideas" or "What's the best way to answer the 'tell me about yourself' question in a job interview?" But ChatGPT can also do things like write poems, songs and essays. You can ask it to compose a holiday greeting card, organize your to-do list and even draft a resignation letter.
The AI is trained on large volumes of data from the internet written by humans, including conversations. But ChatGPT isn't connected to the internet, so it sometimes produces incorrect answers and has limited knowledge.
ChatGPT's surprisingly humanlike prose and confidence when answering questions have made it an overnight hit. The software crossed 1 million users in its first five days, Brockman said on Twitter in early December.
"They do things that many of us would react [with] 'Oh those are the kinds of things that we expect people to do,'" said Chui in reference to ChatGPT and other programs that use similar AI methods to generate artwork, like OpenAI's Dall-E.
Better chatbots and more helpful office tools
There are plenty of one-off examples of how ChatGPT is already being used to help with everyday tasks like creating grocery lists and bedtime stories, as my colleague David Lumb wrote in December. What's less clear is how and if the tech powering ChatGPT will play a broader role in the apps and services we use every day. The chatbot industry is one of the biggest areas experts are predicting will see an impact, particularly when it comes to customer service agents.
Ada, a company that offers AI-powered customer service tools to businesses like Meta, Square and Verizon, already uses GPT-3, a version of the language model that powers ChatGPT. On Dec. 20, Ada announced that it will deepen the use of OpenAI's technology in its products.
In the future, everyday voicebots like Alexa and Siri may benefit from the technology, too.
"You don't need to run ChatGPT just to say 'Set my alarm for 5 p.m.,'" said Etzioni. "But the future of these voice assistants is definitely to have much more powerful conversational abilities."
Another promising role for ChatGPT is as a next-generation office assistant. Experts see potential in the technology for everything from helping to write code, draft emails and assemble job descriptions. Companies like Jasper and Unbounce already offer AI-powered copywriting tools that use GPT-3 for generating taglines, social media copy, emails and product descriptions.
Microsoft reportedly wants to incorporate the AI model behind ChatGPT into Outlook so that it can fetch accurate search results from your inbox even if you don't type the correct keywords, according to The Information. The company has also reportedly discussed using OpenAI's software to create chatbots inside Word and Outlook that could write content after being fed a prompt, the report says.
Microsoft has also been exploring how AI can speed up the code writing process with a product called Github Copilot, which can suggest individual lines of code and whole functions using an AI model from Open AI called OpenAI Codex.
"I think in the domain of code, ChatGPT will also be potentially a game changer," said Yoon Kim, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Asking a chatbot to fix a coding error would be much easier than Googling a question and searching for similar answers, which Kim says is typically the process most coders go through when encountering an issue.
More conversational search results
ChatGPT's ability to surface information in a conversational way has sparked comparisons to search, leading some to question whether similar tools will eventually supplant Google. Even after spending just a few minutes using ChatGPT, it's easy to understand why. Similar to a search engine, ChatGPT can answer questions like "How do I get rid of fruit flies?" and "Which family is most powerful in Game of Thrones?" Instead of serving up a selection of article snippets and links, ChatGPT provides a simple answer, complete with steps as shown below.
ChatGPT may accomplish some similar tasks as a search engine, but it's much more limited in its current form since it can't crawl the web for answers. So if you ask it a question like "What are the best movies on Netflix right now?" you'll get an answer like the one below.
But that doesn't mean tech giants aren't thinking about how to incorporate it into search engines. Microsoft is preparing to launch a version of Bing that uses the AI behind ChatGPT to help deliver more conversational answers to some search queries, reports The Information. The feature could arrive before the end of March. Since ChatGPT can't browse the web, it would likely be used to improve the way search results are presented to users, according to the report.
You.com, a search engine that launched in 2021, also began offering a ChatGPT-like chatbot on its website in late 2022.
Google management issued a "code red" in response to ChatGPT's release, according to The New York Times. Teams within the company have been reassigned to work on AI tools between now and the company's expected conference in May, says the report. Google also has its own language model called LaMDA, which made headlines this summer when former engineer Blake Lemoine publicly voiced concerns about the technology achieving sentience. (In a statement to The Washington Post, Google said there was no evidence to support Lemoine's claims.)
ChatGPT's colloquial nature is also similar to the approach Google has taken with its search engine and voice assistant. What started as a list of blue links has evolved into a tapestry of information panels, snippets and image carousels meant to answer questions directly before users even tap a link. It's easy to see how serving up conversational answers to queries just like ChatGPT does would make Google's search results even more efficient. As the Google Assistant has become more conversational, it's learned new tasks over the past four years, like the ability to wait on hold and book restaurant reservations on your behalf.
But it'll likely be a long time before a chatbot like ChatGPT can provide results that are as accurate and trustworthy as Google's. What we're more likely to see is some type of hybrid system that combines traditional search results with the conversational presentation of ChatGPT, according to Kim, the MIT professor.
"It can craft a fluid natural language answer using the results from the search engine, but also display the sources that it used to craft the answer," said Kim. That sounds similar to the Bing features Microsoft is said to be working on.
Concerns about ChatGPT's limitations and accuracy
But for all the potential that ChatGPT holds, there are almost just as many concerns, the biggest of which centers on the fact that ChatGPT isn't always correct. OpenAI has been upfront about ChatGPT's shortcomings, saying on its website that ChatGPT sometimes "writes plausible-sounding but incorrect or nonsensical answers." OpenAI also cautions that ChatGPT has limited knowledge of events after 2021 and should not be used for advice. Stack Overflow, the question and answer site for programmers, temporarily banned answers written by ChatGPT and GPT because the rate of getting a correct answer was too low.
"Eventually the hard questions are going to come up," said Jennifer King, privacy and data policy fellow at Stanford's Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence. "And some of those hard questions are going to be around, how are you able to tell when it's telling the truth?"
There's also the issue of people using the technology in nefarious ways. The New York City Department of Education restricted access to ChatGPT on school devices amid concerns over cheating. OpenAI's technology is already being used by hackers to develop malicious tools, according to security software provider Check Point Research.
"I guess it's a question of how risky companies see a tool like this, and whether they think that that risk can be constrained," King said when asked about how quickly companies will incorporate tools like ChatGPT into their products.
ChatGPT may be good at crafting answers, but its rapid rise has only resulted in more questions. What will happen when the research preview is over? How will OpenAI and other companies that use the technology address the concerns mentioned above? Is this an iPhone moment for conversational AI? The answers will come in time -- and sooner rather than later.
"We are already seeing a number of new apps," said Etzioni. "But really within six months as opposed to five years or three years, we're going to see a lot more."
Editors' note: CNET is using an AI engine to create some personal finance explainers that are edited and fact-checked by our editors. For more, see.