clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

You thought 2023 was a big year for AI? Buckle up.

AI will change the world this year. We just don’t know how yet.

A hand puts a ballot into a box with a digital code on it.
2024 will be the biggest election year in history.
Moor Studio/Getty Images
Adam Clark Estes is a senior technology correspondent at Vox. He’s spent 15 years covering the intersection of technology, culture, and politics at places like Gizmodo, Vice, and the Atlantic.

Every new year brings with it a gaggle of writers, analysts, and gamblers trying to tell the future. When it comes to tech news, that used to amount to some bloggers guessing what the new iPhone would look like. But in 2024, the technology most people are talking about is not a gadget, but rather an alternate future, one that Silicon Valley insiders say is inevitable. This future is powered by artificial intelligence, and lots of people are predicting that it’s going to be inescapable in the months to come.

That AI will be ascendant is not the only big prediction experts are making for next year. I’ve spent the past couple of days reading every list of predictions I can get my hands on, including this very good one from my colleagues at Future Perfect. A few big things show up on most of them: social media’s continued fragmentation, Apple’s mixed-reality goggles, spaceships, and of course AI. What’s interesting to me is that AI also seems to link all these things together in much the same way that the rise of the internet basically connected all of the big predictions of 2004.

Let me be honest, though: I don’t really know what to think about what’s to come with AI. Maybe 2024 will be the year of artificial intelligence, but I also thought 2023 was supposed to be the year of AI. And despite hundreds of billions of dollars flowing into the industry, I still don’t feel like AI is changing my life. When ChatGPT had its breakout moment after OpenAI released it in late 2022, there was widespread agreement that 2023 would be the year generative AI hit the mainstream. And now apparently 2024 will be the year the technology gets really good and starts changing the way we do absolutely everything.

If your job involves a computer, chances are you’ve already noticed some changes. You now have a whole host of AI-powered chatbots, like Microsoft’s Copilot digital assistant, which can help you summarize meeting notes or build a presentation. Your boss loves this AI assistant concept because it’s designed to help you do more work in less time, and you might like it simply because it makes your job easier. Either way, with billions of dollars of investor dollars pouring into AI companies, we can all expect to encounter these tools more often this year.

“I expect mass adoption by companies that will start delivering some of the productivity benefits that we’ve been hoping for for a long time,” Erik Brynjolfsson, economist and director of Stanford Digital Economy Lab, wrote in a list of 2024 predictions. “If we embrace it, it should be making our jobs better and allow us to do new things we couldn’t have done before.”

This is a great prediction, because it will be at least partially correct no matter what happens this year. (It’s also worth flagging that the Bureau of Labor Statistics actually showed a slight uptick in productivity in 2023 after years of relatively little growth.) You can find similar sentiment in the chorus of experts cheering big moves in AI, including veteran tech journalists like Casey Newton and Alex Kantrowitz as well as research powerhouses like Gartner and McKinsey. They all seem to agree that AI will make some technological leaps (i.e., it will get really good) and that progress will have significant impact (i.e., it will change the way we do absolutely everything).

An AI-powered election year should make everyone nervous

If these two things are true, one place we may see AI become powerful is where we’d least want it: elections. We know for sure that 2024 will be the biggest election year in history, with a billion people going to the polls, including in the US. One big fear is that AI, combined with a breakdown of oversight at social media companies, will be used to flood the zone with what AI expert Oren Etzioni called “a tsunami of misinformation.”

This is a grim prediction, and unlike some of the more optimistic forecasts on AI, it’s not hard to believe it. Generative AI tools can crank out realistic fake images, audio clips, and even videos with remarkable efficiency. And it’s already started. Last April, the Republican National Committee made an AI-generated ad that showed fake images of President Joe Biden alongside fake images of the American dystopia his reelection would supposedly create. The state of Arizona created its own AI-generated fakes and then tried to trick election officials in a two-day simulation meant to prepare them for a flood of misinformation this year.

Suffice it to say, the kinds of AI tools you’d need to make ads like these even more believable have gotten better (and more disturbing) since last year, and, if the experts are right, they’re going to get really good this year.

Another thing to worry about: hallucinations. One of the major shortcomings of generative AI technology like ChatGPT right now is its tendency to hallucinate, or make up information. And since AI is being hailed as a way to improve the way we search for information, a sudden flood of accidentally fake information could be just as big a problem as deliberate misinformation.

Google and Microsoft are already using AI to provide paragraph-long answers to search queries that show up above the traditional lists of links, which themselves increasingly include AI-generated content. Is it all full of hallucinations? It’s hard to know.

The threat of misinformation is just one of a long list of reasons why lawmakers in Washington and around the world have been scrambling to regulate AI, and those efforts are going to intensify this year. The European Union is working on the world’s first comprehensive AI law, although the technology’s capabilities are leapfrogging the new policies before they can be put into place. Biden has also been assertive about kickstarting the process of building a regulatory framework for AI here in the United States, signing the Executive Order on the Safe, Secure, and Trustworthy Development and Use of Artificial Intelligence last October. And Congress is expected to pick up the AI debate in 2024.

I’m barely scratching the surface here. Yes, AI’s influence will just keep growing. But what may come after this year — you know, the reason why there’s a big debate over responsible AI and a collective fear that AI superintelligence could rise up and destroy society as we know it — is even more serious.

But it’s not all bad

It’s also important to remember that some things happening in tech this year sound downright fun.

On the hardware side of things, the big event to watch is the imminent release of the Apple Vision Pro headset. The company says it will begin selling the mixed-reality goggles in “early 2024.” That could be soon — it’s early 2024 right now — but it likely won’t matter to a lot of people since the headsets will cost $3,500. There’s also the fact that plenty of companies, including big ones like Google and Meta, have tried to make headsets mainstream, but Apple’s track record of succeeding where others have failed has people extra excited about the Vision Pro. This will be Apple’s first new major product since the Watch launched a decade ago, so expect frenzied attention on the idea that we’ll be wearing computers on our faces, talking to lifesize avatars, and staring less at our phones in the not-too-distant future. (Instead, I guess, we’ll be staring through our phones.)

We’re also supposed to go back to the moon this year — or thereabouts. We won’t actually land on the thing, but NASA’s Artemis II mission, scheduled for November, could put astronauts closer to the moon than they’ve been since 1972, the year of the last Apollo mission. An actual lunar landing is slated for the Artemis III mission in 2025, and eventually, NASA plans to build a base camp there, potentially allowing us to mine the moon for resources that allow us to live there forever.

Back on Earth, we’ll learn more about outer space thanks to the Vera C. Rubin Observatory, which is expected to go online this year in Chile. It’s essentially the world’s largest digital camera and will start scanning the entire sky over the southern hemisphere every three days for 10 years, mapping our solar system and the Milky Way in detail and giving us more information to understand mysteries like dark energy and dark matter. The observatory also looks like a spaceship crashed into the side of a mountain.

It’s too soon to tell what will make 2024 exceptional. And maybe it won’t be. Perhaps the elections around the world will go off without a hitch, maybe even relatively misinformation-free. Maybe work will still feel like work by December, and AI chatbots won’t be our new watercooler buddies. But as the months fall away, the future will remain uncharted, surprising things will happen, and predictions will be proven wrong.

That’s what’s causing the anxiety, by the way. We don’t know what’s going to happen because it hasn’t happened yet.

A version of this story was also published in the Vox Technology newsletter. Sign up here so you don’t miss the next one!

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.