LLMs and Pocket Calculators

I am old enough to remember when calculators became a thing. There was a weird feeling for a while that this little machine could do math so much better than people could. There was a lot of talk at the time about how smart will computers get. Will they be able to win at chess etc etc.

The calculator, along with many other inventions have shown that many things which we humans do and think about as intelligence are easily done by systems which we ourselves construct. We’ve accepted this for a long time but each time a new one comes along we are forced to examine what is intelligence and what makes us unique or interesting.

LLMs are like this, tho they differ in some ways. Perhaps the most important way they differ is that we actually know a lot less about how they work than we did with the calculator. They also seem to demonstrate a wide range of capabilities that are themselves somewhat difficult to characterize. They feel more and more like they will replace humans.

Calculators, too likely reduced the need for people to sit in a room and calculate. People used to publish books of logarithm tables so I guess they are out of a job now? We see calculators and computers today more as just a tool that helps us be productive by offloading some work that can be done more efficiently and consistently by the tool.

When I am messing around with GPT it seems not so different. It does a lot of things pretty well, it can “answer” questions that I cannot. However, it does seem to still need a human to keep it honest or on track. If I look carefully at the responses it gives me, its not hard to find some soft spots. If you point those out, it will do its best to shore those up, but it doesn’t at any point give me a feeling that I can trust it completely. It just feels like another tool.

LLMs can do some things which assist people in doing their jobs. They might mean that some projects will require fewer people to get the same amount of work done. The don’t currently feel like they are likely to completely replace many specific jobs, but I guess we will see.






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