Contemplations and Consumptions: Vol 15


“It’s well-known that people are bad at predicting the future. But this misses an important nuance: We are very good at predicting the future, except for the surprises—which tend to be all that matter.” Morgan Hounsel

Same as Ever: Timeless Lessons on Risk, Opportunity and Living a Good Life

I mentioned in previous posts how the greatness of David and Tom Brady wasn’t predicted at the beginning until it became self-evident. 

In his 2005 Stanford commencement speech, Steve Jobs said “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward.”

In this post, I will focus on the story of a tech product whose success wasn’t predicted before launch even by its creators. It was a complete surprise for them when the product went viral. 

OpenAI released ChatGPT (3.5) for free on 30 November 2022. The product was regarded within the company as a “low-key research preview” of an upcoming more powerful version called GPT-4. The 3.5 version was released to see how the public would respond to a less powerful AI tool before introducing a more powerful version. A chatbot interface was overlaid on the AI language model so that the general public could interact with the product without needing a PhD degree. 

Greg Brockman, OpenAI’s president, on the night before ChatGPT was released predicted to the team that the product was unlikely to generate much attention. He said ChatGPT would get “no more (attention) than one tweet thread with five thousand likes.”

Once the product was launched, it went viral. User engagement overwhelmed the company’s servers and computing power had to be pulled from other OpenAI projects to meet the demand. It would be the fastest-growing consumer application in history. It reached 100 million monthly active users within two months. TikTok took about nine months to reach 100 million users while Instagram took 2.5 years. 

But what made ChatGPT so successful? 

Derek Thompson, in his book, Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction, said “To sell something familiar, make it surprising. To sell something surprising make it familiar.

My theory is that OpenAI got viral engagement by putting a familiar chatbot interface in front of a complex technology that generated enough surprising results for users. 

ChatGPT 3.5 ensured that OpenAI could release its more powerful ChatGPT 4 model at a premium subscription price of $20 per month and also launch a premium enterprise version for organisations.  

ChatGPT’s success didn’t only get the consumers’ attention but also competitors’ attention. There has been a slew of comparable free and paid AI models in the market since ChatGPT’s debut. Everyone is trying to replicate that viral launch but falling short. ChatGPT made generative AI mainstream but its success wasn’t predictable pre-launch, especially by those who released it. 

If we could predict surprising things then they wouldn’t be surprising. 


📺 (TV Show)

ShogunThere are still 8 months left in 2024 but Shogun will be one of my top 5 TV shows at the end of the year. It’s that good.  This 10-episode limited series is based on the 1975 book of the same title by James Clavell. There is a 1980 TV miniseries adaptation of the book which is a classic but this 2024 version holds up very well. 

Shogun is about an English sailor (John Blackthorne) caught up in the political warfare of feudal Japan. The show explores honour, sacrifice, tradition, loyalty, ambition, power and religion.  

John Blackthorne is the perfect stand-in for the audience as we navigate 1600s Japanese culture through him. He struggles with the disconnect between Western and Eastern cultures and over time; he starts to assimilate via immersion. 

We see Japan in all its glory as feudal lords strive to increase their power before the child emperor comes of age to assume the throne. In the background, Portuguese traders and priests manoeuvre to control the lucrative Asian trading posts. 

All the Japanese characters in the show speak in Japanese, so audiences must read subtitles to understand the dialogue. This choice by the TV show creators situates the audience in a Japanese mindset. The only English dialogue in the show occurs when John Blackthorne converses with the few characters who also speak English. 

Nerdwriter1 did a great YouTube video essay which explores the non-use of English subtitles in the 1980 TV show and its use in the 2024 version. 

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