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How disruptive is AI really going to be?

AI is going to be very disruptive, right? At this point, I think it is pretty clear to most that the answer is yes, almost regardless of what industry you’re in. But is it going to be really disruptive? Like disruptive in the Clayton Christensen sense of the word. (Christensen is known for coining the term “disruptive innovation“, which he contrasted against “sustaining innovation.”)

This is a good question, and I like how Ben Thompson thought about it in his newsletter this morning:

I tend to believe that disruptive innovations are actually quite rare, but when they come, they are basically impossible for the incumbent company to respond to: their business models, shareholders, and most important customers make it impossible for management to respond. If that is true, though, then an incumbent responding is in fact evidence that an innovation is actually not disruptive, but sustaining.

The point he is making is that given that the big tech companies (and of course everyone else) are all now responding to AI by incorporating it into their businesses, it, by definition, must not be a disruptive innovation. It’s a sustaining one. This doesn’t mean that AI won’t have significant impacts on our economy; it just means that maybe it won’t put a company like Alphabet out of business.

I thought this was an interesting way of looking at things because it is a reminder that “disruptive innovations” often start out at the bottom of the market. They start in a way that can feel innocuous to incumbents; that is, until they move upmarket. But this is not at all how AI feels. As soon as you play around with ChatGPT you immediately think to yourself, “holy shit, this thing can do my job.”

That is obviously something very meaningful. But is it going to shake up the big tech world order? I don’t know, if you follow Christensen’s definition, crypto sounds like the more disruptive innovation.

1 Comment so far

  1. That is really the point. The fact that ChatGPT makes us think “holy shit, this thing can do my job” could probably be the first sign of disruption for some.

    Considering companies are all about profit, it could mean that some time in the future the AI will eventually replace some of current jobs, even though it might sacrifice some of its quality. The tech itself doesn’t need to be feared but we need to think of ethical way to approach them. One that can improve our productivity instead of being fully reliant on them.


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