November 1, 2023
Smart chatbots are making rapid progress, but that does not surprise Flemish tech entrepreneur Dries Buytaert. For him, the rise of bots fits into a broader evolution in which the web is fading into the background.
Dries Buytaert created Drupal, software that can be used to build both very simple and very complex websites. Drupal is open source software, which means anyone can study and improve the source code. Buytaert is the head of technology and strategy at Acquia, an American company he founded that commercializes Drupal.
- Drupal founder Dries Buytaert sees the web as we know it disappearing into the background due to the rise of increasingly sophisticated AI such as the chatbot ChatGPT.
- We will use fewer browsers and visit fewer websites.
- It is important that chatbots refer to the sites where they get their information.
- Open source software, with its emphasis on transparency, is even more important to gain insight into the data used to train large language models.
The Drupal founder lives in Boston, but was in Belgium last week, where he spoke about digital user experience at the IT service provider Tobania. Tobania was acquired by the French Sopra Steria, which also acquired the Dutch Ordina. Acquia is a strategic partner of that constellation.
“Users want the right information at the right time and through the right channel,” says Buytaert. ‘Do you remember how you used to have to look for a nice song on the radio? Or how to look up information about friends and family. Now that information comes to you, via channels such as Spotify and Facebook.’ The information is pushed to us, instead of us having to pull it from everywhere.
The browser, as a window for the web, is becoming less and less relevant.
Founder of Drupal and Acquia
There is now the smart conversation bot ChatGPT. ‘We still have to ask questions to ChatGPT ourselves, but thanks to that bot you no longer have to go to different websites and compare the information. You will receive a summarized version and you can choose between a short and a long answer.’
What will the web look like in five years? Buytaert hesitates for a moment. ‘It’s hard to say, but I think the web is moving more and more into the background. The browser, as a window to the web, will become less and less relevant. Websites may become less important.’
Buytaert therefore finds it a problem when chatbots do not clearly state their sources. ‘If they do, the sites where they get the information will still get visitors, but perhaps not as many as before.’
Open source becomes even more important here. ‘Now you don’t know how those large language models work and with what data they have been trained.’ Buytaert believes that these matters should be transparent and that we should be able to choose which major language models we use. ‘You could opt for a large language model that has been trained with its own content. Or only with content from the public domain, where no proprietary rights apply. Open source can provide that transparency so that we can see where the data comes from and what bias there is.’
Drupal responds quickly to developments such as the arrival of chatbots, says Buytaert. Very soon after the launch of ChatGPT, developers ensured its integration into the system. From Drupal, the bot can be used to create content, create summaries, suggest titles or add categories and tags to an article or blog post.
But more is possible. Already no code is needed to build a website with Drupal, but with AI it could be even easier. You can describe in natural language what kind of site you want. The necessary code then comes from AI. ‘These are experiments that we conduct at Acquia. It’s not on the market yet.’
In the 16 or 17 years since we were founded, we have grown every quarter. We are very proud of that.
Founder of Drupal and Acquia
Acquia also extensively uses machine learning, a branch of AI focused on pattern recognition in large amounts of data. By gathering data and the necessary analysis, ‘next best actions’ can be organized. You buy a bicycle online and in the next step you immediately receive an offer for a bicycle bag. There is also such a thing as the ‘best next channel’. It detects that you don’t read many emails, and another channel is tried to reach you.
While the nature of the web is changing, Acquia continues to thrive. The company has more than 1,400 employees. Annual recurring revenues exceed $300 million. ‘In the 16 or 17 years since we were founded, we have grown every quarter. We are very proud of that.’
In 2019, Vista Equity Partners bought out the venture capitalists in the capital. Buytaert himself remained a shareholder, perhaps the largest individual shareholder. ‘I am mainly concerned with the question of how we build good software, how we can evolve the web in the right way.’
He hopes the web will continue to exist for hundreds of years. As project leader of the community that builds Drupal, he remains a strong supporter of an open and transparent web. ‘That is not necessarily the web that some large companies want. They rather aim for walled gardens and use algorithms to make people addicted to their services.’