Sunday, February 04, 2024

This is why the idea that AI will just augment jobs, never replace them, is a lie!

I’ve given a number of Keynotes and talks on AI for Learning to hardcore professional groups in the last year, such as national Police forces, the Military, Health services, Tax authorities and Lawyers. They are different, as they have focus and know exactly who and what they have to train. They train real people to do real things in real jobs. So they are often open to try specific technologies for specific purposes, like AI or VR, which you rarely see elsewhere. 

There is an assumption in academic, HR and L&D conferences, for speakers to assume everyone works in an office. I saw this recently when a ‘futurist’ was talking about the ‘Future of Work’ as if absolutely everyone had the option of working at home. It was slide after slide of home working stats and studies. Itb was as if the working class did not exist – police, health workers, construction, delivery drivers, factory workers, shift workers… the list is very long.

When it came to the technology bit, the speaker was clearly all at sea. It was reductionist, reducing the effects of AI technology to the simple proposition that it will never replace humans, only augment our abilities, all the ‘c’ words were spoken of in earnest tones – creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, communications…. the usual 21st century skill nonsense. Yet there seemed to be remarkably little of any of these in the analysis. She boldly claimed that AI will not take any human jobs and that it will only ‘augment’ roles.

Been here before

This idea that AI will not impact jobs is ridiculous. First it already has. Google has been replacing jobs for decades, all those print advertising jobs were replaced by online skills, bookshops, retail have all been hit hard by Amazon. We now do research online not in libraries, so they have also taken a hit. Word processors destroyed typing pools, spreadsheets bookkeepers. In translation, we are already seeing the wholescale loss of jobs at Duolingo and in every major multilingual company around the world. Teach companies have been the first to see the productivity gains and have laid off thousands of staff. The idea that it has not or will not replace real jobs is preposterous. A nice line to trot out at conferences if you want warm applause, it is dangerously naïve. Speakers tend to want to be loved, rather than facing up to the uncomfortable economic truth that major technical shifts ALWAYS lead to the loss of jobs.

In the US in 1800 75% of workers were in agriculture, that is now 1.2%. 

These jobs disappeared through increases in productivity and automation. The same is true in manufacturing, where huge numbers of factory and mill workers were replaced by automated looms and eventually robots. 

In neither case was mass unemployment the consequence. Huge numbers of new IT and service jobs were created. For example, most companies have an IT department and we have an army of delivery drivers, as opposed to bookshop and retail staff. This happened when online learning replaced traditional classroom training companies. But the internet also created millions of new jobs.

Six separate impacts

In truth, AI technology will have several impacts:

1. Augmentation: AI will certainly augment certain existing jobs.

2. Job losses for non-adoption: new hires will be expected to use this augmenting AI, some who can’t adopt and adapt will lose their jobs.

3. Gradual jobs losses: new hires will diminish as productivity gains are realised: why have 5 when you only need three admin staff using AI to do the same tasks?

4. Jobs will be automated: some jobs will be automated and eliminated using AI. This has already happened with translators (Duolingo) and there are lot more candidates.

5. Legacy companies will disappear: traditional companies will fail to adapt and large numbers will lose their jobs. 

6. New jobs will be created: new companies will emerge, as they did with online learning, with AI experts and knowledge managers. This is already happening.

Timing uncertain

What is being missed here is the simple fact that the same thing is likely to happen again over time. That one variable ‘time’ remains unclear, it may be really fast or relatively slow – but it will happen. Generative and other forms of recent AI tech are essentially replacing psychological or cognitive tasks, not physical tasks. We convinced ourselves that it was only physical working class jobs that would be automated through self-driving cars and robots. That may well turn out to be true but a more immediate fact is that their jobs are rock-solid and safe. It is the graduate jobs that are at risk, especially those involving text production. If you work at home, write lots of emails and or reports, write for a living, translate or deal with language and image production, you are at risk. If you are doing what ChatGPT can do, should you be doing what you do? The more educated you are the more at risk you may well be.

Talking up exceptionalism

We need to stop talking up this human exceptionalism as if middle managers are so full of Critical skills, Creativity, Collaborative and Communication skills that machines have zero impact on. The evidence, in research is already clear. 

We as humans sleep 8 hours a day, our brains full of uneducable biases, we forget almost everything we try to learn, it takes us years to learn most skills, we have incredibly limited working memories barely capable of manipulating 3 or 4  entities, we’re inattentive, emotional, struggle to maintain our wellbeing, get easily demotivated, ill and die. Let’s not pretend that just because a word starts with a capital ‘C’ it is something absolutely and eternally unique to us. 

Copernicus showed we are just another rock circling the sun, Darwin that we are just another animal, psychology that our brains are limited and now AI, competent without comprehension, is beating us hands down at all sorts of cognitive tasks. It stared with calculators, then chequers, chess, GO, poker, computer games, now maths, protein structures, material science, comical decision making, legal tasks, teaching, research and consultancy. It is happening fast. 


It's an uncomfortable thought but one we must face up to if it is to be managed politically, economically and socially. Let’s not pretend, using our own confirmation bias, that we are somehow exceptional because we have a degree, work in ‘management’, now often at home, producing little other than words. That suggests we’re just like those agricultural and factory workers – not unique and exceptional but, at some point, ready for automation.


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