It’s a far cry from the field’s reputation in the 1990s, when Wooldridge was completing his Ph.D. AI was still seen as a weird fringe pursuit; The wider tech sector viewed it in the same way that mainstream medicine views homeopathy, he says.

Today’s boom in artificial intelligence research has been driven by neural networks, which made a breakthrough in the 1980s and work by simulating the circuitry of the human brain. At the time, the technology hit a wall because the computers of the time weren’t powerful enough to run the software. Today we have a lot of data and extremely powerful computers that make this technique viable.

New breakthroughs like the ChatGPT chatbot and the Stable Diffusion text-to-image model seem to happen every few months. Technologies like ChatGPT are still underdeveloped, and both industry and academia are still figuring out how they can be useful, Stone says.

Instead of a full winter AI, we’re likely to see a drop in funding for long-term AI research and more pressure to make money with technology, Wooldridge says. Researchers in corporate labs will be under pressure to show that their research can be integrated into products and thus make money, he adds.

This is already happening. In light of the success of OpenAI’s ChatGPT, Google has declared a “code red” threat to its core product, Search, and is looking to actively modernize Search with its own AI research.

Stone sees parallels with what happened at Bell Labs. If the Big Tech AI labs that dominate the sector abandon deep, long-term research and focus too much on short-term product development, frustrated AI researchers could leave academia and those big labs lose control of innovation, he says.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Nowadays, many smart people are looking for a job. Venture capitalists are looking for new startups to invest in as crypto takes off, and generative artificial intelligence has shown how this technology can be turned into products.

This moment gives the artificial intelligence sector a once-in-a-generation opportunity to play with the potential of new technologies. Despite all the gloom surrounding the layoffs, it’s an exciting prospect.

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