How AI will impact programmers

Last November, I was among the millions of humans who were both surprised and inspired by ChatGPT's breathtaking coding abilities. As a coder myself, I felt compelled to understand three things:

  1. Just how "good" is ChatGPT at coding? Obviously, the anecdotes from users is that ChatGPT is very good at coding. However, I wanted to find concrete numerical data to objectively answer this question
  2. How did ChatGPT get so good at coding?
  3. As a software engineer whose job security depends on my coding skills, what will ChatGPT - and its future versions - mean for me?

I thoroughly researched these questions and have compiled my findings in a podcast — featuring interviews with several guests, including another software engineer, a top AI researcher, and a CS professor. I'm writing this post to summarize my findings - as I'm aware podcasts aren't everyone's preferred medium.

Note: My research covered a variety of Large Language Models, chatbots, and AI-based code generation tools, including ChatGPT, Github Copilot, GPT4, and AlphaCode.

Quantifying how good ChatGPT is at coding

ChatGPT stats:

GPT4 stats:

AlphaCode stats:

How did ChatGPT get so good at coding?

According Dr. Omar Costilla Reyes (an Machine Learning researcher at MIT), a key moment in the lead up to ChatGPT occurred a little over 10 years ago. This key moment was the development of AlexNet - a ground breaking neural network for image classification. In 2012, the creators of AlexNet entered it into a competition for classifying image where it blew away its competitors.

Omar noted that for many ML researchers, AlexNet was an important "proof of concept" for neural networks - a type of machine learning model that is based on the human brain. While neural networks had been around for decades, AlexNet was the first time a neural network had been used to solve a "practical problem, at a large scale."

Looking back, many ML researchers say that AlexNet was an early sign of the so-called "big bang" of Deep Learning - a sub-field of Machine Learning that deals with the development of neural networks. This is because AlexNet benefited from a confluence of three critical technologies that were finally reaching maturity after decades of development. These critical technologies were:

  1. Deep neural network architectures
  2. Extremely large and high quality public datasets. Specifically, AlexNet was trained on a dataset called ImageNet, which has its own interesting backstory and is arguably just as important to the field of Deep Learning as AlexNet itself
  3. And finally, a new generation of graphics processing units that were highly effective at speeding up the training of machine learning models

After this so-called "big bang" of deep learning, it was clear to ML researchers that the process of training a neural network to discover the optimal program for certain computational tasks, such as image recognition, was far superior to a human programmer sitting down and using basic heuristics to write a program for the same task. A decade later, ChatGPT finally caught the rest of the world up to this fact.

What does ChatGPT mean for software engineers?

It's hard to predict the future. However, as a software engineer myself, I firmly believe that Large Language Models like ChatGPT will disrupt software engineering more than any other field. Keeping in mind that future predictions are usually inaccurate, here are some tentative predictions (based on my personal experience with ChatGPT as well as expert interviews):

Myth Busting

All ChatGPT does is remix text it's been trained on, so it will always be dependent on human coders to improve

Research from the top AI institutions has shown that ChatGPT does not just “remix” text it's been trained on. In fact, researchers have discovered that Large Language Models are able to come up with novel solutions to difficult coding problems that are not found in their training data.

For example, when a group of Google researchers entered one of their AI models into a coding competition with 5,000 human competitors, they observed two really important things:

  1. Number one, they found "no evidence that our model copies core logic from training data"
  2. And number two, their model copied code from its training data at a rate very similar to the amount of code that the human competitors copied from the training data

But how could the human coders in this coding competition possibly know what was in Google's training set? Well, the answer is that the code that both the AI model and human competitors "copied" was "mostly boilerplate code for reading and parsing input data." In other words, both the humans and the AI model leaned heavily on extremely common coding patterns for tedious tasks like reading input data, but were still able to use a degree of creativity to come up with the core logic for solving a problem.

These early signs of creativity open up the possibility that AI might one day be able to write code to improve itself, without intervention from humans.

If you are a software engineer who is worried about being replaced by ChatGPT, then you are probably bad at your job

As of today, Machine Learning models are objectively better at discovering solutions for certain computational tasks, such as image recognition and image generation, than even the best human programmer. However, it does not follow that the best human programmer is bad at their job. In the case of image recognition, Machine Learning has outstripped the abilities of all human programmers - competent and incompetent alike.

In fact, many of today's top human programmers have wholeheartedly embraced ChatGPT as a way of automating a large subset of their work, including Andrej Karpathy (formally the head of AI at Tesla, now an engineer at OpenAI):

Copilot has dramatically accelerated my coding, it's hard to imagine going back to manual coding. Still learning to use it but it already writes ~80% of my code, ~80% accuracy. I don't even really code, I prompt. & edit. - Andrej Karpathy

No programmer can avoid being replaced by AI, so the best programmers will likely be the ones who are quickest to pivot to new AI-based tech stacks to take advantage of their productivity enhancements.

ChatGPT has made technical coding interviews obsolete

While ChatGPT has definitely made it a lot easier to cheat on coding interviews, I don't foresee coding interviews going away anytime soon. This is because, as of today, knowing the general outline for a solution to a coding problem is still a lot faster than not knowing how to solve a problem and asking ChatGPT to come up with a solution from scratch. This is because ChatGPT still makes lots of mistakes and struggles to come up with solutions to hard coding problems (e.g., Leetcode Hard problems). Obviously, as ChatGPT gets better at coding, the nature of technical coding interviews will evolve. But as long as software engineers are around, technical coding interviews are here to stay.

ChatGPT is a chatbot

If I had to choose one important takeaway from my expert interviews, its something Dr. White mentioned towards the end of our interview:

ChatGPT is not a text generation engine. It's not an oracle that answers questions like Google. I think all of those things are missing the mark. It's a completely new computational architecture that has capabilities that we don't fully understand yet. - Dr. Jules White

This sentiment — that ChatGPT (and Large Language Models more broadly) are not "just chatbots," but rather, a whole new computational architecture — is one that is shared by some top AI researchers, including Andrej Karpathy:

With many 🧩 dropping recently, a more complete picture is emerging of LLMs not as a chatbot, but the kernel process of a new Operating System. E.g. today it orchestrates:

  • Input & Output across modalities (text, audio, vision)
  • Code interpreter, ability to write & run programs
  • Browser / internet access
  • Embeddings database for files and internal memory storage & retrieval

A lot of computing concepts carry over. Currently we have single-threaded execution running at ~10Hz (tok/s) and enjoy looking at the assembly-level execution traces stream by. Concepts from computer security carry over, with attacks, defenses and emerging vulnerabilities.

I also like the nearest neighbor analogy of "Operating System" because the industry is starting to shape up similar: Windows, OS X, and Linux > GPT, PaLM, Claude, and Llama/Mistral(?🙂). An OS comes with default apps but has an app store. Most apps can be adapted to multiple platforms.

TLDR looking at LLMs as chatbots is the same as looking at early computers as calculators. We're seeing an emergence of a whole new computing paradigm, and it is very early. - Andrej Karpathy

In Summary

In summary, I believe AI will disrupt software engineering more than any other field. Moreover, Large Language Models like ChatGPT are shaping up to be more than just "chatbots" and are probably the foundational technology for the next generation of computers. In fact, there are many startups that are trying to build consumer devices that are more deeply integrated with Large Language Models, including Humane and Rewind. There are also early signs that OpenAI might be building a consumer device. With all this change happening, I think software engineers will do ourselves a favor by embracing and experimenting with new AI-based tech stacks, even if it's just on our own time.

The release of ChatGPT was a huge turning point in human history, so I think I will always fall short in describing how important it will be for software engineers and non-software engieners alike. Thus, I think it's best that I end this article with a quote from someone who is much better at putting words on a page than I am:

Nothing else in the world...not all the so powerful as an idea whose time has come. -Victor Hugo