Why you don't need to worry about AI as a programmer

ChatGPT and other AIs are all the rage and I see many (mostly junior) programmers worrying if the market for devs is going to dry up.

You don't need to worry, and here's why.

ChatGPT is scarily good. It really is. No it's not better at web search than Google (yet), and it's nowhere near being sentient. But for the tasks where it makes sense, it's very good. So I'm not going to tell you that you don't need to worry because it's a useless tool.

ChatGPT (and other AIs) is a tool, in the same way a calculator is a tool or a compiler is a tool. The word “calculator” used to refer to people doing number crunching. My first calculator was a handheld device. Now it's just an app. Yes, calculators, the people, lost their “job” doing mind-numbing number crunching, but they were able to work on more interesting problems in math, physics, or what have you.

Same with compilers. When compilers were invented, people were furious that someone thought a machine could do a better job than an expert programmer at crafting assembly code. Today almost nobody writes directly in assembly, except in rare cases where that makes sense. But “assembler programmers” didn't lose their jobs, they just became “C programmers” or “Lisp programmers”.

It is the same with the new AI models. They are very effective on a whole other level than just number crunching or compiling software, but at the end of the day they're just tools, like programming languages, libraries or APIs.

If you've been a programmer for more than a few years, you know you always need to learn new stuff and stay on top. You'll need to invest some time to learn what ChatGPT and others can do, or can't. What you don't want to do is completely ignore the trend, or (equally bad) think it'll solve all your problems (or put you out of business). And as John Carmack said in a recent tweet keep your eyes on the delivered value and don't over focus on the specifics of the tools.

I've been a programmer for some 30 years (20 or so professionally) and my usual reaction to new stuff is “oh, so they're reinventing that particular wheel again”. Yet the current crop of AIs gets me really excited, like I was a kid again uncovering the vast potential of what you can do with a machine that you can order around! I've been playing with ChatGPT and it makes me faster and it makes programming (more) fun!

Not by writing my code – I don't use it like that because it does produce bugs and it can hallucinate stuff. I use it to explore (how I might go about doing X), and to quickly recall something I forgot (how a particular API or library function is used, for example). As Simon Willison (of Django and Datasette fame) puts it AI-enhanced development makes me more ambitious with my projects.

This is just a beginning, and we're just seeing a boom in integrating these AIs into everything else. Copilot, Bing search, are the big names but people are experimenting with integrations with anything under the sun (I made a service that creates API backends based on your project description, for example). Time will tell which of these will be truly useful, but I have no doubt there will be a lot of them.

AI is a tool, with limitations, but with a lot of potential. It would be a shame not to use it effectively. It won't put you out of a job, it will make your job better.