A few weeks ago, Paolo Belcastro asked, “What happens when every human can program a computer?“
We can only speculate, but it’s worth doing so. I hope this will refill your stock of optimism during a bombardment of doom prophecies.
To get an idea of what might happen if software development becomes accessible to most people, let’s consider what happened when publishing did. The internet lowered the barrier to entry to share ideas with the world, then tools the likes of WordPress and YouTube1 essentially shattered it2.
It’s hard to understate the consequences of giving people who felt they had something to share with the world the ability to do so, bypassing gatekeepers and distributors, and removing the obstacle of learning how to manage a web server or code HTML pages. Everyone is better off for it, starting at the individual level, through to the economy, and all the way up to humanity itself.
Consider entertainment. How much of what you read and watch comes from people’s blogs, Twitter feeds, YouTube channels, or Instagram feeds? How bland would your entertainment be if you went back just 20 years?
Since publishing became accessible to anyone with an internet connection, the courage to hit publish, and the grit to hone their skills, we have unlocked a treasure trove of human potential. The ways one can apply their intellect today are orders of magnitude more than it was a few decades ago. The result is that many more people today have a chance to self-actualize than ever before. No matter your passion, you’ll find a group of people interested to hear about it online.
Most people who participate in the great online game receive little more than a consolation prize. Some can turn it into a side hustle or even a full-time job, and a lucky, talented minority into a source of tremendous wealth. Entire industries have flourished to support the army of independent creators.
Beyond its effect on the GDP, empowering people to share their ideas accelerates progress. In The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley argues that progress happens when ideas are given a chance to mingle, collide, and combine with each other. The more ideas we allow to collide, the higher the chances a spark of progress will be emitted.
Given the massive benefits that lowering the barrier to publishing ideas generated, imagine what lowering the barrier to entry to building ideas could do.
Generative AIs could do to programming what WordPress and YouTube did to publishing. They could remove the barrier to entry and give anyone with access to the internet a shot at making their ideas concrete.
As an iOS developer, I often get pitched app ideas from acquaintances. Some of those potential apps are actually cool, but I don’t have the time to work on them. How many great apps and games have not materialized into the world because the people who imagined them didn’t have the means to code them?
Imagine what could happen if anyone could get their app ideas into the world. Imagine how much time could be saved if anyone who needed to automate a mundane task could write a script for it. Imagine all the untapped potential that could be unleashed and all the progress it would generate.
1 – I’m using WordPress and YouTube as shortcuts for content management software and video streaming services. There are, of course, many alternatives in the market, but those are the most prominent names. Also, full disclosure, at the time of writing, I am employed by the makers of WordPress.com–not to be confused with WordPress.org–although this article is not part of the work I’m doing there.
2 – It’s worth acknowledging that the barrier, however low, remains. One needs a smartphone or laptop, access to the internet, and enough time and mental bandwidth to create. Unfortunately, these are not universal commodities and not everyone has access to them.