Individual devs can now use Github’s Copilot ‘AI assistant’ — will I be out of a job soon?

The recent GitHub Copilot news gave me complicated feelings

artificial intelligence, developers

I love writing code to make things: apps, websites, charts, and even . It’s a skill I’ve worked hard at for more than 20 years.

So I must confess about the release of a new “AI assistant” coding helper called gave me complicated feelings.

Copilot, which spits out code to order based on “plain English” descriptions, is a remarkable tool. But is it about to put coders like me out of a job?

Trained on billions of lines of human code

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(now ) is a collaboration platform and social network for developers. You can think of it as something like a cross between Dropbox and Instagram, used by everyone from individual hobbyists to highly paid software engineers at big tech companies.

Over the past decade or so, GitHub’s users have uploaded tens of billions of lines of code for more than 200 million apps. That’s a lot of ifs and fors andprint("hello world") statements.

The Copilot AI works like many other machine learning tools: it was “trained” by scanning through and looking for patterns in those tens of billions of lines of code written and uploaded by members of GitHub’s coder community.

Copilot produces code from instructions in plain English (the pale blue text). GitHub

The training can take many months, hundreds of millions of dollars in computing equipment, and enough electricity to run a house for a decade. Once it’s done, though, human coders can then write a description (in plain English) of what they want their code to do, and the Copilot AI helper will write the code for them.

Based on the , Copilot is the next step in a long line of “intelligent auto-completion” tools. However, these have been far more limited in the past. Copilot is a significant improvement.

A startlingly effective assistant

I was given early “preview” access to Copilot about a year ago, and I’ve been using it on and off. It takes some practice to learn exactly how to frame your requests in English so the Copilot AI gives the most useful code output, but it can be startlingly effective.

However, we’re still a long way from “Hey Siri, make me a million dollar iPhone app”. It’s still necessary to use my software design skills to figure out what the different bits of code should do in my app.

To understand the level Copilot is working at, imagine writing an essay. You can’t just throw the essay question at it and expect it to produce a useful, well-argued piece. But if you figure out the argument and maybe write the topic sentence for each paragraph, it will often do a pretty good job at filling in the rest of each paragraph automatically.

Depending on the type of coding I’m doing, this can sometimes be a huge time- and brainpower-saver.

Biases and bugs

There are some open questions with these sorts of AI coding helper tools. I’m a bit worried they’ll introduce, and reinforce, winner-takes-all dynamics: very few companies have the data (in this case, the billions of lines of code) to build tools like this, so creating a competitor to Copilot will be challenging.

And will Copilot itself be able to suggest new and better ways to write code and build software? We have seen AI systems before. On the other hand, Copilot may be limited to doing things the way we’ve always done them, as AI systems are prone to do.

My experiences with Copilot have also made me very aware my expertise is still needed, to check the “suggested” code is actually what I’m looking for.

Sometimes it’s trivial to see that Copilot has misunderstood my input. Those are the easy cases, and the tool makes it easy to ask for a different suggestion.

The trickier cases are where the code looks right, but it may contain a subtle bug. The bug might be because this AI code generation stuff is hard, or it might be because the billions of lines of human-written code that Copilot was trained on contained bugs of their own.

Another concern is about licensing and ownership of the code Copilot was trained on. GitHub has said it is , but we will have to wait and see how it turns out.

More output from the same input

At times, using Copilot has made me feel a little wistful. The skill I often think makes me at least a little bit special (my ability to write code and make things with computers) may be in the process of being “automated away”, as many other jobs have been at different times in human history.

However, I’m not selling my laptop and running off to live a simple life in the bush just yet. The human coder is still a crucial part of the system, but as curator rather than creator.

Of course, you may be thinking “that’s what a coder would say” … and you may be right.

AI tools like Copilot, OpenAI’s , and Google’s , have seen huge improvements in the past few years.

Many in white-collar “creative industries” which deal in text and images are starting to wrestle with their fears of being (at least partially) automated away. Copilot shows some of us in the tech industry are in the same boat.

Still, I’m (cautiously) excited. Copilot is a force multiplier in the most optimistic tool-building tradition: it provides more leverage, to increase the useful output for the same amount of input.

These new tools and the new leverage they provide are embedded in wider systems of people, technology, and environmental actors, and I’m really fascinated to see how these systems reconfigure themselves in response.

In the meantime, it might help save my brain juice for the hard parts of my coding work, which can only be a good thing.

This article by , Educational Experiences team lead (Senior Lecturer), ANU School of Cybernetics, is republished from under a Creative Commons license. Read the .

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White Water Rafting or KayakingMount Fuji Overnight Climb ItinerarySip & Gogh Paint Studio: Unleash Your Inner Van Gogh | LakwatseroBatanes ItineraryHow to Get to Quitinday HillsAbout Callao CaveDiscover LakawonBiking to Taal: A Fun Ride to Batangas’ Heritage TownAntique Blooming: The Rafflesia of San RemigioMalasimbo Lights and Dance FestivalBacolod ItineraryPoon HillAttractions in Mirador Heritage and Eco ParkHulhumale Public BeachRomblon Island: Bonbon Beach, Tiamban Beach & MoreAdventure in Sabah: White Water Rafting in Padas River | LakwatseroHow to Get to Hinakpan Mystical HillsWelcome to Lake SebuAbout CasiguranAbout BuscalanHow to Go to Kalanggaman IslandFaro de Cabo Bojeador (Cape Bojeador Lighthouse)Backpacking Maldives: Budget Itinerary, Expenses & TipsHow to Get ThereOffbeat Bohol Itinerary: 3D/2N of AdventuresHow to Get to Tawi-TawiAlona BeachPangilatan Falls: The Forgotten Gem of Tapaz, CapizWorld War I: SMS Cormoran II3D/2N Taiwan Itinerary: Taipei – Yehliu – ShiffenLaos for Backpackers: Getting There on a BudgetBasic RequirementsHow to Get to Antong FallsCathedral CaveHow to Go to Gubat, SorsogonAbout SadangaHow to Get to Bugui Point LighthouseHow to Get to Cabra Island LighthouseCebu Itinerary: Three-Day Adventures in the SouthAbout AndaLuna: A Day in the Show Window of Apayao | LakwatseroMargues Blue LagoonFinding Palaui’s Cape Engaño Lighthouse | LakwatseroHow to Get to Mantayupan Falls of Barili, CebuHow to Get to MaligcongLinapacan Islands: Between Paradise | LakwatseroKLIA to KLCCHow to Get to JomaligBanaug ShoalEspadang Bato – Payaran Falls Day Hike Itinerary10 Remarkable Philippine Destinations for Solo TravelMiagao Church: A UNESCO World Heritage Site in IloiloAbout Carbin ReefAbout Parola IslandCabra WreckageCobra Falls: Ozamiz City’s Best Kept SecretBasco: The Chapel on the Hill of Tukon | LakwatseroBack in Kathmandu’s Lovely Mess | LakwatseroHimalayan Adventure: Kathmandu to Pokhara Overland | LakwatseroItineraryChinatown Vancouver (Stop #23)Situbo Falls: Tampilisan's Awesome SurpriseHow to Get to Inambakan FallsTuasan Falls: Another Camiguin’s Charmer | LakwatseroHow to Get to Lake SebuMarinduque Loop: Biking in the Heart of the Philippines1. 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