Matt Welsh is the CEO and co-founder of Fixie.ai, an AI-powered software delivery company founded by a team from Google and Apple. “I believe the conventional idea of ‘writing a program’ is headed for extinction,” he opines in January’s Communications of the ACM, “and indeed, for all but very specialized applications, most software, as we know it, will be replaced by AI systems that are trained rather than programmed.”
His essay is titled “The End of programming,” and predicts a future will “Programming will be obsolete.”
In situations where one needs a “simple” program (after all, not everything should require a model of hundreds of billions of parameters running on a cluster of GPUs), those programs will, themselves, be generated by an AI rather than coded by hand…. with humans relegated to, at best, a supervisory role…. I am not just talking about things like Github’s CoPilot replacing programmers. I am talking about replacing the entire concept of writing programs with training models. In the future, CS students are not going to need to learn such mundane skills as how to add a node to a binary tree or code in C++. That kind of education will be antiquated, like teaching engineering students how to use a slide rule.
The engineers of the future will, in a few keystrokes, fire up an instance of a four-quintillion-parameter model that already encodes the full extent of human knowledge (and then some), ready to be given any task required of the machine. The bulk of the intellectual work of getting the machine to do what one wants will be about coming up with the right examples, the right training data, and the right ways to evaluate the training process. Suitably powerful models capable of generalizing via few-shot learning will require only a few good examples of the task to be performed. Massive, human-curated datasets will no longer be necessary in most cases, and most people “training” an AI model will not be running gradient descent loops in PyTorch, or anything like it. They will be teaching by example, and the machine will do the rest.
In this new computer science — if we even call it computer science at all — the machines will be so powerful and already know how to do so many things that the field will look like less of an engineering endeavor and more of an an educational one; that is, how to best educate the machine, not unlike the science of how to best educate children in school. Unlike (human) children, though, these AI systems will be flying our airplanes, running our power grids, and possibly even governing entire countries. I would argue that the vast majority of Classical CS becomes irrelevant when our focus turns to teaching intelligent machines rather than directly programming them. Programming, in the conventional sense, will in fact be dead….
We are rapidly moving toward a world where the fundamental building blocks of computation are temperamental, mysterious, adaptive agents…. This shift in the underlying definition of computing presents a huge opportunity, and plenty of huge risks. Yet I think it is time to accept that this is a very likely future, and evolve our thinking accordingly, rather than just sit here waiting for the meteor to hit.
“I think the debate right now is primarily around the extent to which these AI models are going to revolutionize the field,” Welsh says in a video interview. “It’s more a question of degree rather than whether it’s going to happen….
“I think we’re going to change from a world in which people are primarily writing programs by hand to a world in which we’re teaching AI models how to do things that we want them to do… It starts to feel more like a field that focus on AI education and maybe even AI psychiatry. In order to solve these problems, you can’t just assume that people are going to be writing the code by hand.”