Listen to this story
It was only a matter of time before Sam Altman’s OpenAI announced a subscription fee for its AI chatbot, ChatGPT. While there was hardly anything revolutionary about an AI chatbot that answered queries so far, the new ChatGPT has turned into one of the biggest sensations in the space till date. Considering the number of users latched onto ChatGPT, keeping the tool free was burning a hole in OpenAI’s pocket. A week earlier, OpenAI stated that it was ‘thinking of ways to monetise’ the chatbot. Now, the company has landed on a number that will grant users access to a pro-tier version of ChatGPT—USD 42 per month.
To most, the number meant nothing. For anyone in the thick of sci-fi and AI research, ‘42’ was loaded with meaning.
Origin of 42 as the Ultimate Answer
While writing ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,’ British author Douglas Adams, who was a tech enthusiast himself, added a central joke that became as famous as the novel itself now. In Chapter 27 of the novel, two programmers, Lunkwill and Fook, are chosen to ask the Ultimate Question to Deep Thought, a supernatural computer programmed to calculate the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything.
Subscribe to our Newsletter
Join our editors every weekday evening as they steer you through the most significant news of the day, introduce you to fresh perspectives, and provide unexpected moments of joy
Deep Thought initially responds to the programmers saying that it will take the computer 7.5 million years to answer their question. Seven and a half million years later, descendants of Lunkwill and Fook wait with bated breath for Deep Thought’s answer. The supercomputer pauses for a moment and reveals the answer—Forty two.
Inside joke or truth
Since the release of the book in the early 1980s, sci-fi fans have proposed a bunch of theories underlying the significance behind Adams’ choice of ‘42’ as the ultimate answer to everything. When asked, Adams simply dismissed the theories saying it was a joke. However, this has done nothing to deter millions who continue to ascribe a special meaning to 42.
Confirmation bias set aside, there’s an entire list where 42 strangely pops up. Ancient Egyptians believed that 42 demons were present during the final judgement, 42 is also the perfect score at the International Maths Olympiad. In modern mathematics as well, the sequence 42424242 occurs 242,422 places after the decimal point in the number Pi.
In the late 1990s, when a team at the Cavendish Laboratory used a new technique to estimate the value of the Hubble Constant—a measure of how fast objects in the universe were receding from each other—the average speed was found to be, well, 42.
In AI/ML research too, 42 is the mystical random state variable setting for engineers. The value of the random state variable itself doesn’t really matter—it’s just an arbitrary number fed into the programme that dictates a specific seed of randomness for it. However, whether it is for the sake of an inside joke or simply as a tribute to Douglas Adams’ book, ML engineers and researchers tend to choose 42 as the random state variable in their experiments.
GPT—the modern Deep Thought
For all the seeming coincidences that Hitchhikers’ book has thrown up, the reality of a machine that can talk to us does not seem too far away. Deep Thought does sound suspiciously like OpenAI’s other famed AI model, GPT-3, which is a large language model that has taught itself to think and write.
Altman himself has made references between the two. Last year in December when asked about the release date of the upcoming, multimodal successor to GPT-3, in a nod to the book, Altman joked saying that the model will take “a while” to finish and that it kept responding ‘42’ to every prompt.
Science fiction has served as a common root interest between founders and has often ignited the imaginations of entrepreneurs and scientists like Altman to show visions of the future that they seek to build.
New Twitter boss and Tesla CEO Elon Musk has said that Adams’ book inspired him in his teenage years. Co-founder of LinkedIn Reid Hoffman has professed to being “an obsessive science fiction reader” and how it broadened his thinking. Hoffman and Peter Thiel were reportedly discussing Neal Stephenson’s futuristic sci-fi novel ‘Snow Crash’ a weekend before they created PayPal. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has stated that he has loved Star Trek since his childhood and that the company’s virtual assistant Alexa was inspired by the all-knowing computer that was on the Starship Enterprise in the series.