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Created by Zed A. Shaw Updated 2024-07-21 04:57:00

60: Advice from An Even Older Programmer

Imagine it's 1820 and you want a nice portrait of your mother. You hear that paintings in pastel are all the rage and can be done quickly while still looking beautiful, especially in the candlelight you use to light your home at night. You contact an artist, they come to your home, do some initial sketches of your mother, and then schedule return visits to complete the painting. Since the artist uses pastel they can finish a very nice portrait in a record 6 hours of sitting, and make your mother look younger too. It also only costs you a week's salary which is a bargain compared to an oil painting. Those are very expensive and can take months.

Decades pass and your children want to have a nice portrait of you. It's 1840 and your children sign you up to sit for a photograph! It's so exciting because they look so real and they're so easy. You go to the photographer's studio, sit in a chair wearing your finest clothes, and the photographer takes the photo. The whole process takes maybe 30 minutes, with the photo taken in an instant. Within a few years even more ways to take photos are invented, and within a few decades photography begins to completely change the world, for better and worse. Eventually the pastel of your mother is long forgotten.

Today you (not the 1820s you) live in a world that Photography made possible. You are looking at this course either on a computer screen that is a direct descendent of the early cameras, or on a book that was printed using cameras. Your computer is also a direct descendent of photography, with the original process to create a CPU utilizing a process similar to developing film. Not only that, but your computer would not exist without the ability to utilize photography to exchange schematics, designs, documents, and many other artifacts necessary to construct all the equipment to make it. You are also most likely alive because of photography and painting, which helped pioneer modern chemistry manufacturing by companies like Bayer. Without the industrialized chemistry perfected on pigments you would not have aspirin, antibiotics, x-rays, and photographs of DNA.

I firmly believe that Photography created the modern world, and I believe that you are currently standing on the edge of a similar revolution in computing with the recent invention of Generative AI. It's very early, but technology such as Large Language Models and Stable Diffusion are already useful technologies and only getting better. Eventually these technologies will feed into even better and more efficient technologies, in much the same way Photography created the silicon wafers that now power the sensors in modern cameras. If these technologies continue to advance then what happens to programmers?

Probably the same thing that happened to painters when Photography sufficiently advanced. Before photography you had to hire an artist if you wanted a memory of your mother, and all of those artists were out of work within one generation. Now it's odd to find an artist who can accurately paint a portrait. I believe programming will be very similar, where it will be odd to find a programmer who can actually code something from scratch without help.

If that's the case, then why bother learning to code? For the same reason I learned to paint a realistic portrait:

There is more to programming than just getting paid to turn buttons cornflower blue for some billionaire.

I learned to paint because I felt like I would enjoy it, and I do immensely. I can easily take a photo, but painting gives me a unique experience that I can't get from a taking a photo. I learned to code because I really enjoyed making a computer do things, and programming gives me an experience I can't get if I let a Large Language Model do it for me. I code because I feel like I have to, not just because it pays the bills.

What does this mean for you as a new programmer? The story of photography and painting continues in the 1900s when painters realized they didn't have to do realistic paintings anymore. They could paint whatever they wanted, so they made paintings that reflected who they were and what they saw. Painting changed from a thing you did to pay the bills into a vehicle of human expression, which is what we consider art today.

I believe this will happen to programming soon as well. You'll see programmers being liberated from having to do mundane boring tasks like "make this button 20% larger." They'll instead be able to use computation to express their thoughts and feelings. Sure, people will still obviously do the boring work when they need money (and there's no shame in that). Many artists have painted a few cat portraits to pay the rent. But the vast majority of programming will change into a new art form for expressing yourself rather than just a boring job.

There's also the potential for AI to only wipe out jobs for junior developers, since every company will want to use AI to speed up development, but no company will trust the code AI writes. You can think of this possibility as companies keeping professional developers, and simply firing all the juniors to replace them with AI. Learning how to code well without assistance will be how you become good enough to ironically get a job using AI to help you code. You will also have this same problem in your own projects. If you are not very good at programming on your own then how would you know the code that an AI tool generates is good?

These events are not something that will happen soon, but I hope this book prepares you for the change. Learning about Data Science is the first step to understanding how Generative AI Models work. Understanding how this technology works will give you some control over the future of programming. Learning to code now is also the first step to creating the software you want to create. Maybe the future is everyone becomes some kind of indie game developer? Who knows, but you now have an amazing future ahead of you if you're willing to be flexible and embrace the new things that come along.

Until then, I'll be happy if you take what I taught you and get a job or create a small business. I don't want you to think I'm against programming as a job. After all, the artistic future of programming can't happen if you can't eat.

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