In my last blog post, we took a peek into the history of artificial intelligence (AI) and why, contrary to some dystopian visions, it’s not on the verge of world domination. But what’s really keeping people up at night these days isn’t the fear of robot overlords; it’s the nagging question of whether AI is going to swipe our jobs out from under our noses.
It’s a simple question with a complex answer. The recent WGA/SAG-AFTRA debate (where it relates to protections around AI) or the recent executive order signed into effect by the Biden Administration that seeks to impose stricter oversight and regulation of the use of AI, demonstrate the impact of these fears. On one hand, I do believe this oversight is a positive step towards the responsible use of a powerful tool. On the other hand, the notion that AI is either “good” or “bad” makes little sense. Artificial intelligence is a tool, much like a chainsaw. To ask yourself whether or not a chainsaw is inherently good or bad seems ridiculous (despite what horror movies might have us believe). While there’s more to the executive order than what’s up for debate in Hollywood, the trend is clear and highlights the punchline of my aforementioned post:
“While [AI] might seem ‘scary’ in the context of job loss, or the more fantastical theory of world domination, I believe it is a tool that can be used to do both good and harm, depending on who’s using it.“
I do believe the conversation that’s happening around the regulation of tools like AI is an extremely important one – perhaps one that will define our generation. But as someone who’s devoted most of their life to learning about, designing, and applying technologies to various problems in the workforce, I am concerned about the impact that our unrestrained fears might have on restricting the potential for good. Rather than carrying out their desired effect, regulations often push organizations and individuals to look for loopholes and workarounds – driving the work to areas that don’t have them.
Culturally, we’re at a crossroads, and it’s high time we rethought the way we work and make a living. Instead of clinging to the traditional model where employees trade their time for a predetermined sum, it seems that now, more than ever, some industries ought to embrace a model of performance-based compensation. What does that mean? Well, in cases like the WGA strike and similar environments were employees are being paid to create content, the studios and writers could agree upon a mutually beneficial solution that allows for the use of AI to create better content in less time — all while ensuring writers are fairly compensated and could even hold a stake in the final product. In this scenario, they would be compensated for the quality of their work (versus the amount of time they spent creating it) and the rich connections they are able to make to culture and meaning (Something that no AI can do…at least for the time being). Studios shouldn’t use AI to simply replace writers or slash their pay. Rather, writers should decide when to use AI to enhance their content and then sprinkle their creative magic on top.
This approach doesn’t fit for every job, but it’s a game-changer for roles that require a touch of “artistry.” And in my book, that term applies to more jobs than we might initially think.
One Man’s Trash…
Let me share a quick story from my childhood about a garbage collector’s chore. When I was about 5 years old, I was walking with my grandfather when a garbage truck stopped by us. Someone quickly jumped out of the truck, picked a very heavy (and smelly) garbage can, swiftly emptied it in the back of the truck and drove away. This all happened in a matter of seconds and with a level of finesse I couldn’t appreciate at the time.
Focusing on the smell, I asked my grandfather why someone would ever choose such a job. He told me to respect anyone who’s striving to provide for their family, and to recognize that the person collecting trash had honed their skills to an art form. This was not the answer I was expecting.
The “art” can be found everywhere, even in the mundane, dirty, and otherwise unpleasant. It’s found when we create value by doing a job, solving problems or coming up with new ways to do things that would’ve otherwise required more time and hands. It is more strongly emphasized when we borrow from things we learn in one place and apply them to invent new ways of doing things in another. It’s revealed when we find ourselves in a flow state, when we innovate, creatively problem solve and so much more. And, most importantly, and in the case of my waste collector, it’s not always obvious where you’ll find that ‘art’.
The bottom line is that we should give AI to creators and let it handle the mundane and repetitive work, which then allows them to focus on the creative aspects. AI has many other uses, some of which involves work that humans simply just can’t do. Finding a needle in a haystack, for example, or running an comparative analysis of thousands of haystacks to forecast how many needles there might be? Great jobs for AI. Coming back to our WGA example, sure, a writer using AI will create the same quality of product in half the time. Should they get paid less? Nope. The fact that something takes less time doesn’t automatically reduce the quality. Writers are paid for their ideas, not how long it takes them to get them down on paper. If you apply that to our previous example, that garbage collector was paid for quality (his technique and ability to complete his route) and not quantity. At least in the case of where I grew up, garbage collectors were paid a salary to finish a route — not for their time.
A Brief Interlude on Career Darwinism
AI is far from being a new kid on the block. But job obsolescence isn’t new either. Throughout history, we’ve adapted, whether it’s overcoming unfavorable genes or ditching outdated ways of doing things. This adaptation has been fueled by a steady stream of technological breakthroughs, from engineering and electricity, to computing machines.
Jobs have evolved over time in tandem with technology. That technology didn’t wipe out farmers, for example; it merely reshaped their roles within the farming ecosystem. Zooming out to the bigger picture, the world’s population has surged from 5 billion in the 1990s to over 8 billion today. Yet, the unemployment rate has remained fairly constant, give or take a few hiccups like the COVID-19 era. More importantly, technology has also improved working conditions and human rights all while reducing the need for some manual labor in the process.
In the face of this evolution, we have a choice: adapt or fade away. AI is just another step in the ongoing shuffling of the deck, creating order from chaos in its own way. Looking at my kids’ education compared to mine, I see a gradual shift. They spend less time today memorizing and more time learning how to use tools to solve problems.
As a coder, I anticipate that AI will have a substantial impact on our field. But I’m not worried. Most of us will adapt, and new folks who previously felt excluded will join the party. This will lead to reduced working hours, more creators, and a society that values leisure and creativity.
This philosophy extends beyond just one debate; it applies to countless areas and applications for AI. Some tasks are tailor-made for AI, like finding hidden patterns, predicting outcomes, or doing work that is so repetitive and tedious that you’ll need sweatshops to accomplish them. In these cases, AI complements human abilities, opening up new frontiers. In my vision of the future, we’ll have fewer farmers, fewer doctors, a billion politicians, and seven billion YouTube influencers. It’s a utopia where innovation knows no bounds.
AI may be able to whip up endless variations of code, blog posts, and recipes, but it can’t concoct the next big idea or deliver the beautiful chaos bellwethers do. For that, you still need a human touch, or more specifically, the beauty of human creativity, error and natural evolution. After all, some of our greatest discoveries have been purely accidental.
So, will AI take our jobs? As you might expect the answer is complicated. Some professions will indeed be replaced by technology, but it will also make others more efficient and lead to the creation of new opportunities and better working conditions. My point is that as jobs are eliminated by AI, new ones will be created. Being optimistic, I believe these new jobs will be less cumbersome, more enjoyable, and available to more groups that, currently, do not get to participate in the great technology party. All which lends itself to making the world (yes, I naively said it) a better place. 😉 In this ongoing debate, I hope we don’t stonewall AI’s use but instead harness its potential for the greater good.
Shy is Blooma’s Chief Technology Officer and has spent the last 30+ years in the industry building cutting-edge technologies with specific expertise in big data, AI, machine and deep learning, data normalization, and crawling. He was recognized as a technologist of extraordinary ability by the US government for his contributions to multi-protocol middleware solutions.