Is ChatGPT the end of programmers? ‘It will make them more efficient, not replace them’

Experts agree that as helpful as the artificial intelligence tools are, programming professionals will still be necessary in the future, albeit with different roles

Inteligencia Artificial
Banners of OpenAI, the company behind ChatGPT, at the Tel Aviv University. In the foreground, a horse made from computer parts.AMIR COHEN (REUTERS)
Jordi Pérez Colomé

The new artificial intelligence tools, with ChatGPT currently at the forefront, will revolutionize the creation of text, images, videos and music. Their ability to write code has had less of an impact, however, but it is just as amazing. As has been the case in other disciplines, in recent months apocalyptic articles have been written by experts, with titles like “The end of programming” or “ChatGPT will replace programmers within ten years.” The key, however, is in the details: what exactly is it capable of programming?

First, it is capable of solving challenges that deserve a lot of impact. The journal Nature published this week an article by researchers from DeepMind (Google) where they increase by 70% the efficiency of a C++ algorithm that had been in use for decades: “We show how artificial intelligence can go beyond the current state of the art by discovering hitherto unknown routines,” the article states. “What is really interesting is that the system learned how to write a series of instructions without anyone telling it how,” explains Armando Solar-Lezama, an MIT researcher who had access to the article before its publication.

They told it what instructions it could use, and it started to try combinations. All they told it is if it was right or wrong. Just with that, the system was able to infer what instructions it had to write and connect to generate the program,” adds the expert, about AlphaDev, the program created by DeepMind.

These advances prove that artificial intelligence can overcome complex challenges. But how far can it go without human intervention? The Nature article explains that they posed the problem as a game to the machine, which had been specifically trained for that, and with humans guiding the process. It is relevant – but not a complete revolution. “People are very excited,” continues Solar-Lezama. “With these AI models we have seen how they can suddenly do things that used to be considered very difficult. But now we want to know what they can do well and what they cannot. Based on that, how can we reimagine programming to make it more effective? There are already tools that are beginning to help programmers, but only as a helper.”

Think of it as a smart apprentice

Words like “assistant” and “helper” come up often in conversations with programmers and IT teachers, as if the AI were a smart apprentice. Although the novelty is stunning, few foresee a cataclysm in the profession. As Brigitte Pientka, a professor at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and co-author of a paper showing that ChatGPT could get a B in an introductory-level programming course, explains: “ChatGPT can be surprisingly and deceptively good at generating short programs. But it is not very reliable for now. I would say that in the future it will be more important to be able to evaluate and validate automatically generated programs, to guarantee a level of security and reliability.” Programmers, therefore, will continue to be just as necessary – perhaps with a different role, according to Pientka: “Saying that we no longer need computer scientists thanks to ChatGPT is like saying that we don’t need mathematicians or statisticians thanks to calculators and Excel.”

Saying that we no longer need computer scientists thanks to ChatGPT is like saying that we don’t need mathematicians or statisticians thanks to calculators and Excel
Brigitte Pientka, Universidad McGill

The same specialized magazine that wrote about the “end of programming” in January, earlier this month published an article entitled “AI Does Not Help Programmers,” by the famous professor Bertrand Meyer. As a programmer, Meyer writes, he would love to have an assistant to keep him in check and correct him when he fails. However, he laments, what he has is “the equivalent of a cocky graduate student, smart and widely read, also polite and quick to apologize, but thoroughly, invariably, sloppy and unreliable. I have little use for such supposed help.”

In developer forums like Hacker News there are dozens of open discussions about how and how much ChatGPT and other, more specific applications, actually help. The variety of responses is enormous, but the enthusiasm of a few months ago has waned. Solar-Lezama explains that it must be seen as just another stage in the history of programming: “Programming is going to change as it has already changed in the last 20 years. And the previous 20. Today is different than when I graduated. New programming languages also appeared, making it possible to automate things that people used to do by hand. It was easy to reuse code someone else had written. Today I can write extremely complex programs in Python in 10 minutes, which a generation ago would have taken a large team months,” she adds.

It doesn’t save that much time

AI has become that assistant that helps reduce somewhat the time spent on programming work. Just not in extraordinary amounts: “At first I was surprised to find that ChatGPT made software code well,” says Daniel Lemire, a professor at the University of Quebec, in Canada, who does advanced programming work. “Copilot [a Microsoft tool] can write entire sections of code; it’s as if it can read my mind. But sometimes it gets it wrong. It is difficult to measure the time that I save; maybe 10%. Writing code is a small fraction of programming, which includes design, testing, benchmarking, discussions, specifications...”

“It is going to change programming as it has already changed in the last 20 years”
Armando Solar-Lezama, MIT

For all these reasons, jobs in programming seem like a reasonable bet for the future. Despite the current advances in software automation, programmer employment is on the rise. The only certainty is that in the future there will be more code, largely thanks to the agility that AI allows, but not fewer programmers. “I predict that we will continue to hire more people, regardless of the advances in AI,” says Lemire. “Jobs will be different, maybe even completely new, but there won’t be a decline any time soon because of artificial intelligence. Students aspiring to a career in the software industry need to stay the course,” he adds.

The efficiency of programmers, not their replacement, will be the great advantage of this revolution, according to Stephen Piccolo, a professor at Brigham Young University: “Surely some companies will hire less, at least initially, while they grasp the implications of technology. But in the near future, this technology will make programmers more efficient instead of replacing them.”

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