In this thoughtful essay, James Somers suggests that while ChatGPT-4 has forever changed the role programmers play and the tasks they perform, it can’t alter the puzzle-solving spirit that inspires people to become coders in the first place.
Computing is not yet overcome. GPT-4 is impressive, but a layperson can’t wield it the way a programmer can. I still feel secure in my profession. In fact, I feel somewhat more secure than before. As software gets easier to make, it’ll proliferate; programmers will be tasked with its design, its configuration, and its maintenance. And though I’ve always found the fiddly parts of programming the most calming, and the most essential, I’m not especially good at them. I’ve failed many classic coding interview tests of the kind you find at Big Tech companies. The thing I’m relatively good at is knowing what’s worth building, what users like, how to communicate both technically and humanely. A friend of mine has called this A.I. moment “the revenge of the so-so programmer.” As coding per se begins to matter less, maybe softer skills will shine.
So maybe the thing to teach isn’t a skill but a spirit. I sometimes think of what I might have been doing had I been born in a different time. The coders of the agrarian days probably futzed with waterwheels and crop varietals; in the Newtonian era, they might have been obsessed with glass, and dyes, and timekeeping. I was reading an oral history of neural networks recently, and it struck me how many of the people interviewed—people born in and around the nineteen-thirties—had played with radios when they were little. Maybe the next cohort will spend their late nights in the guts of the A.I.s their parents once regarded as black boxes. I shouldn’t worry that the era of coding is winding down. Hacking is forever.