Everything we see online floods us with the promise and fears of artificial intelligence (AI).  But I have a way to describe what I see when I look at AI.  It’s not a huge technological breakthrough.  It’s also not the end of humanity or our jobs. AI represents something we recognize as both a benefit and a threat.

Have you used this?

Living in Florida and owning a sizable piece of land (3/4 of an acre), you need special tools to help maintain that property.  One of the first times we had a large hurricane come through Orlando, we had large tree limbs down.  Using a hand saw became overwhelming to try to clear the brush.  I bought a chainsaw.  

The first time I started it up and attempted to cut through the woody debris, that chainsaw scared the hell out of me.  It would catch and jump in knotty parts of the wood.  It sometimes got stuck as a large limb shifted and pinched the cutting blade.  And every time one of these problems cropped up, I would see the warning stickers all over the chainsaw telling me what not to do.  They reminded me this machine may cause harm to myself and others.

But once I got the hang of it and learned to avoid the problems, this huge job was much easier.  In fact, that chainsaw came in handy when Hurricane Ian blew through and knocked down trees on our street.  A few of the neighbors came out with chainsaws to help clear a large tree completely blocking our neighborhood’s entrance.

A residential street on a rainy day after a Hurricane.  A large tree fallen and blocks the entire street.  A power line is down on the side of the street.  Neighbors with chain saws are quickly cutting through the tree to clear it from the road.  A white Volvo station wagon is parked in front of the tree to pull away larger debris.  A neighbor dressed in black pants and a black jacket and hat is directing the car as it backs up to a large tree limb.

Neighbors coming together to clear a tree blocking our main street after Hurricane Ian

Maybe you’ve not used a chainsaw.  But I’ll bet you have used something that scared you a bit at first.  In our kitchen, it’s my wife’s latest cooking appliance, the air fryer.  With so many options and settings, I don’t know if I’ll get my meal cooked how I want or if I need to have the fire department on speed dial.  My kids took to it right away, and they are teaching me how to avoid the complicated settings and get what I want from it.

So now you might see how I think about AI — another power tool.  But that power can be used in different ways.

Is AI really a new power tool?

AI will become a power tool for many of us. It will make complex and difficult jobs easier for us.  Before ChatGPT became news, I used a different AI tool to aid in large-scale remote facilitation (see Remote Facilitation – Dancing with AI at Scale.)

To learn this new power tool, I considered a task I often get stuck on.  If you speak at a Meetup , a podcast interview, or a conference, you are often asked to send a short biographical paragraph (a.k.a. “the bio blurb”).  You can send a standard bio, but it’s best to tailor it for the audience and a current call to action.  Bios advertise you.  

However, I struggle with customized bios.  People hosting these events assume you always have a bio ready and they want it quickly.  I want a bio that helps people learn what I can do for them now and the action they can take to get my help.  

So, I’ve been experimenting with large language models (LLMs) like ChatGPT, Claude.ai, and Google’s Bard AI for crafting customized bios.  Rarely do I use what they suggest, but I sometimes use some of the phrases or approaches to introduce my capabilities.  It has helped me get this particular task done much faster.

I’ve even encountered outputs from these AI bots where they have “hallucinated” on books I’ve written.  One of the books didn’t even exist, but I liked the title.  I might use that title in the future.  Don’t worry. I did verify it didn’t exist.  However, this clues us into another application of this new power tool.

Is AI a weapon?

Absolutely!  Anything that provides an advantage in accomplishing a task can also harm.  

This past weekend revealed a harmful use of AI when the “SEO Heist” story broke out on social media.  If you didn’t hear it, an SEO expert mined a competitor’s website for article titles, used those titles to generate similar content to the targeted website using AI, and then was able to position their website in search results to steal 3.6 million views.  In other words, they used AI to shove their fake website in front of unsuspecting internet users.   This person even bragged about it on social media.  It’s not illegal, but it is unethical.  Several websites and YouTube channels picked up on this and reported on the implications of the heist.  You can read more about it here and here.

Is AI a replacement for us?

No.  The large language models (LLMs) that get so much attention these days are stochastic models of their input.  Simply, it predicts a likely response based on your question (prompt), the words you use, and the sequence of those words.  You get better results from an LLM if you have a more detailed prompt.  You are providing more search criteria so it can narrow its response.

Some may argue that this understanding of language also implies an understanding of the concepts.  I’m still waiting to see proof there.

And there are some tasks for which I’m not interested in applying AI.  For instance, I write to clarify my thoughts and not just to share them.  If I give that task to an AI, I don’t have clarity on new concepts.  So, if you were wondering if I used an AI LLM to write this article, you can stop wondering.  It’s all me.

Should I learn more about AI?

If you are a knowledge worker: probably.  Almost every tool I use now flaunts some new AI capability.  But that’s not a good reason.  If you want to keep yourself marketable as a consultant or just job hunting, you will probably need to know a bit about AI.  A recent job announcement on LinkedIn made this clear to me. 

A standard LinkedIn celebration post where someone posted "I'm excited to start my new job! KPMG Gen-AI Agile Coach and Delivery Manager."  The person's name and picture is blurred intentionally.
A LinkedIn post announcing a new job as a Generative-AI Agile Coach and Delivery Manager.

You may disagree that this job is real, but it’s out there.  And now others will consider it.  So, understanding what AI can do will be a competitive advantage, whether looking for your next job, determining if you can use the next AI add-on, or just engaging in a meaningful argument on the impact on your profession.

Also, these new machines labeled AI, and more specifically LLMs, can make some tasks easier, but they don’t come with warning labels yet.  President Biden issued an Executive Order on Oct 30, 2023, to address some of the concerns.  It received mixed reactions, as you can see in this article.  

So even if AI scares you like the first time I used a chainsaw, it’s another good reason to explore and understand it. Remember that we fear what we don’t understand.

With that, I’ll provide a few places you can learn more:  

  • I recently joined Dave Prior to discuss AI’s implications for agilists on his podcast.
  • On Dec 8, I will host a panel discussion on AI, Agile, and You.  I hope you can join us for the entire Minicon as some great talks are lined up just before the panel.  You can get more information on joining at the Agile Alliance website.
  • I’ll be raising more of the implications of AI on the future of work in my newsletter, Differability.  You can join here.

Regardless, be sure to learn to use this new power tool to improve your marketability and not do harm to yourself or others.