This article is from Big Technology, a newsletter by Alex Kantrowitz.
The chatbots did their job. They inspired awe, mockery, and even some fear. Most importantly, they drew attention. Front-page headlines, cover stories, and word of mouth caused millions to try them, leading businesses and developers to ask how they could put the technology to use.
But ChatGPT and Bing’s chatbot were never the end product. The APIs were always the point. These bots were demos meant to sell other companies on tools they could use to build their own. And it worked. Now, the war to build the leading generative A.I. platform is underway.
“For OpenAI, the vast majority of the money they will ever make will come from developers,” Ben Parr, president of the e-commerce-software company Octane AI, told me via phone on Thursday. “ChatGPT is just the entry road into everything else.”
Even before this wave of A.I. chatbots reached the public, the companies behind them prepared APIs for developers so that they could interface with the technology underlying ChatGPT and its peers. When ChatGPT gained momentum in January, OpenAI president Greg Brockman teased an API “coming soon.” That same week, Microsoft made OpenAI models available through Azure, its cloud service. On the day Google introduced its Bard chatbot, CEO Sundar Pichai promised to make some of the underlying technology available by March. And this week, just a bit late, Amazon announced it would partner with the A.I. company Hugging Face to make a generative-language tool available through Amazon Web Services.
“Everybody who develops software is either alerted, or shocked into alert, or actively working on something that is like ChatGPT to be integrated into their application, or integrated into their service,” NVIDIA CEO Jensen Huang said during his company’s earnings call Wednesday. NVIDIA provides the chips the tech runs on, so it stands to benefit, too. Its stock jumped 14 percent Thursday.
Finding broad, useful applications for generative AI will be challenging, but some obvious early applications stand out. Customer service departments, for instance, could use chatbots that can hold a conversation. Gaming companies could build intelligent characters and make NPCs a thing of the past. And marketers could attempt to use generative-language models to forge deeper bonds with customers.
This is all moving fast. On Tuesday, OpenAI announced it had partnered with the management consulting firm Bain & Company to help clients build on its API. Zack Kass, OpenAI’s chief customer officer, said in a launch video that OpenAI couldn’t keep up with the interest in its technology. “We are inundated at this point with enterprise demand that we sort of waited for, for a long time, and here it is,” he said. “Now we just need to figure out how we field it.”
Later in the video, Coca-Cola executives said they planned to use the tech in their marketing efforts “to deliver creative content at speed.” Coca-Cola CEO James Quincey also mentioned he believed the tech would change knowledge work, but without going into specifics.
Coca-Cola is a fitting launch partner. In a recent presentation, investor Chamath Palihapitiya mentioned that Coke succeeded thanks to another invention: refrigeration. Coca-Cola made more money than the people who invented the refrigerator, he said, and that could happen here too. “If AI/LLMs are the refrigeration,” he asked. “Who will be the next Coca-Cola?”
The companies that enable successful A.I. applications—the refrigeration, in Palihapitiya’s analogy—still stand to benefit tremendously, though. And so those developing the underlying technology are doing what they can to help launch the next big thing on their platform, and perhaps take a chunk of it too. OpenAI, for instance, has a $100 million startup fund meant to work with A.I. companies in health care, climate, education, and elsewhere. “Look at some of the companies that OpenAI’s invested in,” said Parr. “There are real use cases.”
The APIs, amid the commotion, are what matter. They’re why Microsoft was willing to release an unproven chatbot into Bing, even when it knew it was a bit crazy. And why the company didn’t seem to mind when the bot’s flaws exploded into public view. It was never about Bing or ChatGPT, but about the potential future they previewed. And now, given the demos’ success, the race to enable that future is underway.