Threat or Opportunity?
Generative AI, the technology behind chatbots, automated writing tools, and content generators, burst into our consciousness in late 2022. OpenAI released ChatGPT in November. By January 2023, there were over 100 million users. According to TechTarget, this is the fastest ever adoption of a consumer service.
While generative AI promises to boost productivity and efficiency in countless areas (see last week’s post), many people warn generative AI can also have negative impacts on professional workers.
One of the major concerns is job displacement. Annie Lowry, in the January 20, 2023 issue of The Atlantic, cites an Oxford University study predicting that generative AI might replace people in up to 47 percent of US professional jobs. Half of all professional jobs!? Wait! What jobs and over what timeframe?
Generative AI automates may many tasks previously performed by humans, possibly resulting in job loss. This trend is not new, as automation has always been a part of the workplace since the first Industrial Revolution. What is new is the impact on professional workers, not just those on the factory floor. However, generative AI’s ability to learn and improve means it will continue to perform more complex tasks. Part of being a professional will continue to mean adapting to changing conditions and using the best technology for the job.
Another potential impact is what economists call deskilling. When AI takes over certain tasks, critics warn human workers may lose their skills or become less skilled in those areas. These critics reason workers need to maintain their proficiency in automated tasks or they will find it hard to find work of the same type or compete with machines in the future. When machines can economically automate tasks and humans should adapt. Our word “calculator” comes from those office workers who used to add up and calculate all the bookkeeping numbers for businesses. Mechanical calculators replaced human calculators. When was the last time you multiplied two five-digit numbers without a calculator?
We can again look at the parallels in the Industrial Revolution. Before automation, manufacturing involved many dirty, dangerous, and tedious tasks, such as painting assembly line cars or tending mechanical looms. Now with robotics, we automate many of these specific tasks and most people move on to different, safer, more interesting, and better paying industrial jobs for their employers. Of course, there are exceptions and as a society we need to find better ways to help people find good jobs throughout their career. A Brookings Institute study finds that increased productivity and lower costs lead to more consumer spending and the creation of more jobs and entirely new jobs. Who knew that “social media image manager” would become a profession?
Redesigning jobs so that people work with automation will boost productivity. As professionals leave the more mundane tasks to automation, they can adapt and learn new, higher-level skills. This has happened over and over in our history as our tools become more powerful and now smarter. Professionals and their employers will both need to invest in education and training programs that focus on developing additional skill sets that complement the use of AI.
Could generative AI maintain bias and discrimination in the professions? This danger is real and critical. If biased data is used to train AI, then existing biases and discrimination in the workplace will continue and possibly increase. To prevent this, AI developers and employers must ensure that the data used to train AI is diverse and representative. Companies must also establish ethical guidelines to ensure the fair and equitable use of AI. Our governments must also must write these ethical guidelines into law.
Will AI cause a loss of in human creativity, as some people predict? Hardly. While generative AI can produce a large amount of content quickly, it generally still lacks the creative spark and nuance that the human touch provides. Creativity is in our human DNA.
We can use AI as a tool to support human creativity rather than replace it. For example, one tech blogger I know uses AI tools to generate ideas and suggestions that he uses to write his articles and posts. I am also moving in this direction. Wired magazine now has a policy that it will publish no chatbot text unless the story is about generative AI.
This, of course, may change in the future as generative AI develops and becomes more robust. However, for now, generative AI content may work fine for more basic text with established guidelines, such as many standard legal documents. Shakespeare and Toni Morrison, however, are not in danger of displacement.
Generative AI will continue to move into the professional workspace. If professionals and employers view AI as capable assistants, they will product more and better work. As with industrial automation, we will have more and better goods and services. The economy will grow, just as it did with industrial automation.
To realize the benefits and manage potential impacts, companies must think deeply and strategically about their products and services, their responsibility to society, and their human resources policies. They will need to invest even more in education and training programs. They will ensure their workforce is diverse and representative and that the products of their AI tools are as well.
Human resources professionals will design roles for AI as a tool to support human creativity rather than replace it. Companies will provide support and training for workers transitioning to new roles or skill sets. By doing so, we can harness the power of generative AI while also prioritizing the well-being of professional workers.
Interested in technology and change? Check out my new book Teen Innovators: Nine Young People Engineering a Better World with Creative Inventions.