4 minute read

What Both the AI Die-Hards and The True Believers Must Remember About the Early Internet

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The debate around artificial intelligence has reached a fever pitch. On one side, true believers proclaim that human-level AI is just around the corner, poised to transform every facet of business and the economy. Skeptics retort that the technology's real-world utility remains limited, that it's too costly and unreliable for wide-scale adoption, and that the gap between hype and reality is wider than ever.

In many ways, the current moment in AI feels reminiscent of the early internet era of the late 1990s. Back then, a similar tension played out between starry-eyed optimists and cynical critics. Netscape's IPO in 1995 unleashed a gold rush mentality, as investors threw money at any startup with .com in its name. Wild proclamations abounded about how the internet would change everything overnight.

But even as company valuations soared disconnected from fundamentals, doubters argued the internet was overhyped, its commercial potential limited. They pointed to high-profile failures like Pets.com, which went from IPO to liquidation in just 268 days. In a now-infamous Barron's article from May 1999 titled "Amazon.bomb," the magazine argued that Amazon's business model was fundamentally flawed and that its stock price was destined to crash.

Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that the skeptics were right about many of the dot-com era's excesses. But they were wrong about the internet's long-term transformational potential. Amazon, despite the Barron's article's predictions, went on to become one of the world's most valuable companies. Why? Because beneath the hype and the hubris, a quiet revolution was taking place.

Fast forward to today, and the parallels to the AI landscape are striking. The potential for AI to reshape industries from healthcare to finance to creative work is immense. But as with the early internet, the path to realizing that potential is complex and riddled with obstacles. Today's large language models can produce fluent text, but their outputs are often superficial or inconsistent. Image generation models frequently make basic errors. Costs remain exorbitant, limiting widespread adoption.

These challenges echo the growing pains of the early internet era. Back then, it took major infrastructure investments — in fiber optic networks, server farms, last-mile broadband — to create a foundation for sustained innovation and growth. Standards needed to be hammered out around everything from communication protocols to security. New programming languages and development frameworks emerged to improve the stability and functionality of websites and applications.

But perhaps the most instructive parallel lies in the unglamorous work of building the connective tissue between the flashy new technologies and the back-end systems that power businesses. Amidst the turmoil of the dot-com boom and bust, a handful of pioneering companies were quietly laying the groundwork for the internet's commercial future. 

Platforms like Microsoft's Site Server 3.0 Commerce Edition and Netscape's CommerceXpert emerged to help businesses navigate the brave new world of e-commerce. These tools provided the crucial linkages between web storefronts and the inventory management, order processing, and customer data analytics systems that businesses relied on. IBM's WebSphere Commerce Suite brought e-commerce capabilities to the company's substantial base of AS/400 users. While less heralded than the consumer-facing darlings of the era, these middleware solutions were essential in transforming the internet from a curiosity to a true engine of economic transformation.

The lesson for today's AI pioneers is clear: realizing the technology's transformative potential will require not just advancing the state of the art in models and algorithms, but also doing the hard, unglamorous work of integration with the systems and processes that power real businesses. Companies will need to invest not just in AI capabilities, but in the data infrastructure, governance frameworks, and change management processes necessary to weave these tools into the fabric of their operations. It will require a significant re-thinking of how work gets done, and a gradual, iterative approach to transformation.

None of this is to downplay the genuine excitement and potential surrounding AI. The technology truly does have the potential to reshape industries and unlock entirely new ways of creating value. But as the early internet era taught us, the path to that future is often paved not by the most flashy or hyped applications, but by the quiet, behind-the-scenes work of building bridges and laying foundations.

So while it's tempting to get swept up in AI mania — or to write the technology off as hopelessly overhyped — the wiser course is to learn from the lessons of the early internet. Believe in the long-term vision, but be prepared for a nonlinear journey. Be excited by the potential, but anchored in the practical realities of integration and operationalization. Most of all, recognize that the true transformative impact of AI, like the internet before it, will be realized not in a sudden, overnight revolution, but in a gradual, iterative process of weaving it into the fabric of how businesses actually work.

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written by
Enterprise AI
4 minute read