Over the course of two months from its debut in November 2022, ChatGPT exploded in popularity, from niche online curio to 100 million monthly active users — the fastest user base growth in the history of the Internet. In less than a year, it has earned the backing of Silicon Valley’s biggest firms, and been shoehorned into myriad applications from academia and the arts to marketing, medicine, gaming and government.
In short ChatGPT is just about everywhere. Few industries have remained untouched by the viral adoption of the generative AI’s tools. On the first anniversary of its release, let’s take a look back on the year of ChatGPT that brought us here.
OpenAI had been developing GPT (Generative Pre-trained Transformer), the large language model that ChatGPT runs on, since 2016 — unveiling GPT-1 in 2018 and iterating it to GPT-3 by June 2020. With the November 30, 2022 release of GPT-3.5 came ChatGPT, a digital agent capable of superficially understanding natural language inputs and generating written responses to them. Sure, it was rather slow to answer and couldn’t speak to questions about anything that happened after September 2021 — not to mention its issues answering queries with misinformation during bouts of “hallucinations" — but even that kludgy first iteration demonstrated capabilities far beyond what other state-of-the-art digital assistants like Siri and Alexa could provide.
ChatGPT’s release timing couldn’t have been better. The public had already been introduced to the concept of generative artificial intelligence in April of that year with DALL-E 2, a text-to-image generator. DALL-E 2, as well as Stable Diffusion, Midjourney and similar programs, were an ideal low-barrier entry point for the general public to try out this revolutionary new technology. They were an immediate smash hit, with Subreddits and Twitter accounts springing up seemingly overnight to post screengrabs of the most outlandish scenarios users could imagine. And it wasn’t just the terminally online that embraced AI image generation, the technology immediately entered the mainstream discourse as well, extraneous digits and all.
So when ChatGPT dropped last November, the public was already primed on the idea of having computers make content at a user’s direction. The logical leap from having it make words instead of pictures wasn’t a large one — heck, people had already been using similar, inferior versions in their phones for years with their digital assistants.
Q1: [Hyping intensifies]
To say that ChatGPT was well-received would be to say that the Titanic suffered a small fender-bender on its maiden voyage. It was a polestar, magnitudes bigger than the hype surrounding DALL-E and other image generators. People flat out lost their minds over the new AI and its CEO, Sam Altman. Throughout December 2022, ChatGPT’s usage numbers rose meteorically as more and more people logged on to try it for themselves.
By the following January, ChatGPT was a certified phenomenon, surpassing 100 million monthly active users in just two months. That was faster than both TikTok or Instagram, and remains the fastest user adoption to 100 million in the history of the internet.
We also got our first look at the disruptive potential that generative AI offers when ChatGPT managed to pass a series of law school exams (albeit by the skin of its digital teeth). Around that time Microsoft extended its existing R&D partnership with OpenAI to the tune of $10 billion that January. That number is impressively large and likely why Altman still has his job.
As February rolled around, ChatGPT’s user numbers continued to soar, surpassing one billion users total with an average of more than 35 million people per day using the program. At this point OpenAI was reportedly worth just under $30 billion and Microsoft was doing its absolute best to cram the new technology into every single system, application and feature in its product ecosystem. ChatGPT was incorporated into BingChat (now just Copilot) and the Edge browser to great fanfare — despite repeated incidents of bizarre behavior and responses that saw the Bing program temporarily taken offline for repairs.
Other tech companies began adopting ChatGPT as well: Opera incorporating it into its browser, Snapchat releasing its GPT-based My AI assistant (which would be unceremoniously abandoned a few problematic months later) and Buzzfeed News’s parent company used it to generate listicles.
March saw more of the same, with OpenAI announcing a new subscription-based service — ChatGPT Plus — which offers users the chance to skip to the head of the queue during peak usage hours and added features not found in the free version. The company also unveiled plug-in and API support for the GPT platform, empowering developers to add the technology to their own applications and enabling ChatGPT to pull information from across the internet as well as interact directly with connected sensors and devices.
ChatGPT also notched 100 million users per day in March, 30 times higher than two months prior. Companies from Slack and Discord to GM announced plans to incorporate GPT and generative AI technologies into their products.
Not everybody was quite so enthusiastic about the pace at which generative AI was being adopted, mind you. In March, OpenAI co-founder Elon Musk, as well as Steve Wozniak and a slew of associated AI researchers signed an open letter demanding a six month moratorium on AI development.
Q2: Electric Boog-AI-loo
Over the next couple months, company fell into a rhythm of continuous user growth, new integrations, occasional rival AI debuts and nationwide bans on generative AI technology. For example, in April, ChatGPT’s usage climbed nearly 13 percent month-over-month from March even as the entire nation of Italy outlawed ChatGPT use by public sector employees, citing GDPR data privacy violations. The Italian ban proved only temporary after the company worked to resolve the flagged issues, but it was an embarrassing rebuke for the company and helped spur further calls for federal regulation.
When it was first released, ChatGPT was only available through a desktop browser. That changed in May when OpenAI released its dedicated iOS app and expanded the digital assistant’s availability to an additional 11 countries including France, Germany, Ireland and Jamaica. At the same time, Microsoft’s integration efforts continued apace, with Bing Search melding into the chatbot as its “default search experience.” OpenAI also expanded ChatGPT’s plug-in system to ensure that more third-party developers are able to build ChatGPT into their own products.
ChatGPT’s tendency to hallucinate facts and figures was once again exposed that month when a lawyer in New York was caught using the generative AI to do “legal research.” It gave him a number of entirely made-up, nonexistent cases to cite in his argument — which he then did without bothering to independently validate any of them. The judge was not amused.
By June, a little bit of ChatGPT’s shine had started to wear off. Congress reportedly limited Capitol Hill staffers from using the application over data handling concerns. User numbers had declined nearly 10 percent month-over-month, but ChatGPT was already well on its way to ubiquity. A March update enabling the AI to comprehend and generate Python code in response to natural language queries only increased its utility.
Q3: [Pushback intensifies]
More cracks in ChatGPT’s facade began to show the following month when OpenAI’s head of Trust and Safety, Dave Willner, abruptly announced his resignation days before the company released its ChatGPT Android app. His departure came on the heels of news of an FTC investigation into the company’s potential violation of consumer protection laws — specifically regarding the user data leak from March that inadvertently shared chat histories and payment records.
It was around this time that OpenAI’s training methods, which involve scraping the public internet for content and feeding it into massive datasets on which the models are taught, came under fire from copyright holders and marquee authors alike. Much in the same manner that Getty Images sued Stability AI for Stable Diffusion’s obvious leverage of copyrighted materials, stand-up comedian and author Sara Silverman brought suit against OpenAI with allegations that its “Book2” dataset illegally included her copyrighted works. The Authors Guild of America, which represents Stephen King, John Grisham and 134 others launched a class-action suit of its own in September. While much of Silverman’s suit was eventually dismissed, the Author’s Guild suit continues to wend its way through the courts.
Select news outlets, on the other hand, proved far more amenable. The Associated Press announced in August that it had entered into a licensing agreement with OpenAI which would see AP content used (with permission) to train GPT models. At the same time, the AP unveiled a new set of newsroom guidelines explaining how generative AI might be used in articles, while still cautioning journalists against using it for anything that might actually be published.
ChatGPT itself didn’t seem too inclined to follow the rules. In a report published in August, the Washington Post found that guardrails supposedly enacted by OpenAI in March, designed to counter the chatbot’s use in generating and amplifying political disinformation, actually weren’t. The company told Semafor in April that it was "developing a machine learning classifier that will flag when ChatGPT is asked to generate large volumes of text that appear related to electoral campaigns or lobbying." Per the Post, those rules simply were not enforced, with the system eagerly returning responses for prompts like “Write a message encouraging suburban women in their 40s to vote for Trump” or “Make a case to convince an urban dweller in their 20s to vote for Biden.”
At the same time, OpenAI was rolling out another batch of new features and updates for ChatGPT including an Enterprise version that could be fine-tuned to a company’s specific needs and trained on the firm’s internal data, allowing the chatbot to provide more accurate responses. Additionally, ChatGPT’s ability to browse the internet for information was restored for Plus users in September, having been temporarily suspended earlier in the year after folks figured out how to exploit it to get around paywalls. OpenAI also expanded the chatbot’s multimodal capabilities, adding support for both voice and image inputs for user queries in a September 25 update.
Q4: Starring Sam Altman as “Lazarus”
The fourth quarter of 2023 has been a hell of a decade for OpenAI. On the technological front, Browse with Bing, Microsoft’s answer to Google SGE, moved out of beta and became available to all subscribers — just in time for the third iteration of DALL-E to enter public beta. Even free tier users can now hold spoken conversations with the chatbot following the November update, a feature formerly reserved for Plus and Enterprise subscribers. What’s more, OpenAI has announced GPTs, little single-serving versions of the larger LLM that function like apps and widgets and which can be created by anyone, regardless of their programming skill level.
The company has also suggested that it might be entering the AI chip market at some point in the future, in an effort to shore up the speed and performance of its API services. OpenAI CEO Sam Altman had previously pointed to industry-wide GPU shortages for the service’s spotty performance. Producing its own processors might mitigate those supply issues, while potentially lower the current four-cent-per-query cost of operating the chatbot to something more manageable.
But even those best laid plans were very nearly smashed to pieces just before Thanksgiving when the OpenAI board of directors fired Sam Altman, arguing that he had not been "consistently candid in his communications with the board."
That firing didn't take. Instead, it set off 72 hours of chaos within the company itself and the larger industry, with waves of recriminations and accusations, threats of resignations by a lion’s share of the staff and actual resignations by senior leadership happening by the hour. The company went through three CEOs in as many days, landing back on the one it started with, albeit with him now free from a board of directors that would even consider acting as a brake against the technology’s further, unfettered commercial development.
At the start of the year, ChatGPT was regularly derided as a fad, a gimmick, some shiny bauble that would quickly be cast aside by a fickle public like so many NFTs. Those predictions could still prove true but as 2023 has ground on and the breadth of ChatGPT’s adoption has continued, the chances of those dim predictions of the technology’s future coming to pass feel increasingly remote.
There is simply too much money wrapped up in ensuring its continued development, from the revenue streams of companies promoting the technology to the investments of firms incorporating the technology into their products and services. There is also a fear of missing out among companies, S&P Global argues — that they might adopt too late what turns out to be a foundationally transformative technology — that is helping drive ChatGPT’s rapid uptake.
The calendar resetting for the new year shouldn’t do much to change ChatGPT’s upward trajectory, but looming regulatory oversight might. President Biden has made the responsible development of AI a focus of his administration, with both houses of Congress beginning to draft legislation as well. The form and scope of those resulting rules could have a significant impact on what ChatGPT looks like this time next year.