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Alex Lawrence on why developers and students should embrace ChatGPT

May 03, 2023

Everyone has opinions about ChatGPT, but what does it actually mean for tech leaders and learners? We sat down with Alex Lawrence, Ph.D., associate professor at Weber State University, entrepreneur, and SaaS leader, to get his takes.

Alex has been very active in talking about ChatGPT in top tier media. As a self-professed early adopter of all things technology (he was the very first person to take an Uber ride in the state of Utah!), Alex is passionate about sharing how developers and students alike can harness AI.

While ChatGPT’s impact on careers in tech has yet to be determined, Alex’s unique point of view on the new tool offers instructions for how we can consider its positives and negatives with curiosity instead of fear. With the right approach, it can be a game-changer in the best sort of way, helping developers automate mundane processes and scale their skills to keep advancing human intelligence alongside artificial intelligence.

“Be a better cheater” with ChatGPT

“When I first saw ChatGPT in early December…immediately I kind of had two thoughts,” said Alex. “One, this is going to change everything in the business world, and two, as a professor, this is the greatest cheating tool I've ever seen in my life, right?”

Alex’s visceral first reaction to the AI ended up being spot on: ChatGPT quickly became the fastest-growing app in the world, boasting 100 million users in the first two months of its launch. (The site now gets around 25 million users daily.) 

Alex made a radical decision: He allowed his students to use ChatGPT in his technology class and encouraged them to get familiar with it before it became a true threat to their future careers. 

Like many other tech leaders, Alex recognizes that ChatGPT and its competitors, which include Bing AI and Google’s Bard, could be a way to game the system (albeit a controversial one). “The stuff I'm going to teach you will enable you to be a better cheater if you want to be,” he told them.

But instead of using it to pass the bar exam, write English class essays, or do math homework for you, he encourages his students to think of it as a critical tool to up their game and stand out to future employers. 

The generation currently in school will be exposed to (and become more comfortable with) generative AI. They’ll likely develop  competitive skill sets because of it. “I'm telling them, though, that they have such a unique opportunity: They get to be first,” said Alex. “Embrace it, become an expert in it, figure out how to use it and leverage it, and then be transparent about that.”

Use times of uncertainty to scale AI skills

The fear of “technological unemployment” has been around since the Industrial Revolution, and the term itself is nearly one hundred years old. Since ChatGPT is so new, no one is quite sure if it’s capable of fully replacing human talent. Even Alex admitted that he doesn’t know how this most recent introduction to the AI landscape will play out. 

Alex noted that since we don’t yet know the consequences of AI like ChatGPT, everyone (not just students) should use this time of uncertainty to scale their own skills. “You have a chance to really take advantage of it,” he said, noting that today’s technologists are on the frontlines of this new world.

Developers can stay ahead of the curve with ChatGPT

He believes that being familiar with ChatGPT could even provide job protection for developers. 

“You know, a level one programmer might not exist in the future,” Alex said. Asking AI to automate basic code can give developers a better starting point for writing and enable them to jump past level one and two programming and into level three programming.

For example, AI might be able to increase entry-level code-writing volume and build basic apps quickly and inexpensively. This frees up time and energy for human developers to focus on more complex tasks AI can’t necessarily do and offer high-end coding.

To stay ahead of the curve, Alex recommends software engineers get on beta testing lists and start using the technology in their side projects and work they do for fun. Programmers should try to enjoy this tool, at the very least. “I think the best [developers] are going to really dive in deep,” he said. 

If you’re scared of AI or assume its popularity will blow over, Alex encourages you to try it out yourself and see how this affects your day-to-day processes. 

There is certainly a way for machine learning engineers and software engineers to jump on the opportunity to learn everything they can about the technology and build it into their toolkit. ChatGPT’s usefulness can be as significant or insignificant in your life as you make it, and Alex’s  take is that it’s worth jumping on. “Right now, you've got a chance to be an expert and to embrace it and leverage it and use it to scale up and then ride the wave as opposed to letting it come crashing over you,” he said.

The technological, legal, and ethical challenges of ChatGPT

Whether AI is an immediate threat or a tool (or both), the fact remains that the current iteration of generative AI isn’t perfect. One major issue is its inability to identify when something is true or not. “It’s a very real problem right now,” said Alex. 

Because generative AI pulls data from the Internet, it can quickly present information to users in a very human way. But that also means that it can share data that is incorrect. It has only been trained on data that existed before 2021, so there are obvious limitations to its ability to handle recent social biases and prompts that might need more recent information.

Beyond these technological concerns, there are legal and ethical challenges that are hard to deny. Deepfakes, plagiarism, impersonation . . .the potential for bad actors to enter the scene is exponential. This is a worldwide challenge that will be an ongoing discussion, and there will be very significant cultural impacts on our society that will need to be addressed in the near future.

Alex believes that there will soon be questions of who holds intellectual property of creative works generated by AI, whether or not students are deserving of scholarships if they write their essays using chatbots, and who gets offered coding jobs if they use ChatGPT to help them write. As our use of AI increases, so should our expectations of our own intellect. 

“Don’t use [AI] too much to fake it til you make it,” Alex warned. “Don’t become reliant.”

Where to start with ChatGPT

Alex encourages technologists and students alike to play around with ChatGPT for fun and see what it can do. Getting experience with it now will give you a great head start when it inevitably becomes a part of day-to-day operations in tech. 

For more insights from Alex, check out this  video interview with him.

While there are still a lot of unknowns when it comes to generative AI, embracing it is a great way to minimize fear and see how you can use it to your advantage. This free, short course, ChatGPT and Generative AI: The Big Picture, can help you and your team learn the basics of ChatGPT and how to apply it to real-world problems.