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The Fear of AI: Is your job at risk?

On 20 October 2020 the World Economic Forum published The Future of Jobs Report 2020. A key finding in the report was that technological progress would create 97 million new job roles by 2025, with many companies accelerating their digitalisation and automation. While the fear of artificial intelligence has traditionally focused on the doomsday-esque cinematic idea of robot overlords enslaving humanity, the report pointed out that 85 million jobs were at risk of being displaced; a more immediate and perhaps more realistic concern of another kind.

Few people could have imagined the impact ChatGPT would have on industries far and wide following its release on 30 November 2022. It could do so much! It was answering questions, writing poems and analysing complex problems. Almost every day, people are reporting new uses and applications for it, from planning a holiday to wooing a Tinder match.

Bing has finally found a way to potentially catch up to Google, with the world’s most popular search engine going into ‘red alert’ mode, venture capital funding is being poured into AI-related start-ups, and leading figures in technology such as Elon Musk and Steve Wozniak have called for a pause in giant AI experiments because of “profound risks to society and humanity”. The next disruptive technology that society has long been expecting has finally arrived.

Programmer coding on computer screens

While ChatGPT and other AI-generative technologies have opened up a world of practical, creative and research opportunities, they have also put many jobs as risk. Who needs an artist when you can write a few lines of descriptive text and an application such as DALL·E generates a stunning work of art? Why hire someone to do a voice over for your next YouTube video when text-to-speech applications can do it for a fraction of the cost? And who needs a proof-reader when you can copy and paste your text into ChatGPT and ask it to point out any grammatical and spelling errors?

Job loss is a legitimate concern, however some argue that AI is impressive but not ‘human’, and by consequence is lacking in many respects. Articles generated by AI are stilted and unnatural, and thus not pleasant to read. Text-to-speech voice overs lack the cadence of a human voice and can be spotted within a few seconds. AI art looks impressive to the untrained eye but lacks the passion and emotion conveyed from a human artist. Some manga artists in Japan, for example, feel AI tools are incapable of reproducing a uniquely human touch and cannot replicate the “messy” and inconsistent drawings of actual artists.

And so for many people AI isn’t a technology that will replace jobs, but rather complement them. But while this transition is occurring and this coexistence with AI technologies can apply to many jobs, there will be jobs that disappear into the darkness. The World Economic Forum’s The Future of Jobs Report 2023 states that on the human-machine frontier, 57% of tasks will be completed by machines and 43% by humans by 2027, and that the fastest declining jobs include data entry clerks, administrative secretaries and material-recording clerks.

Office clerk searching for documents in a filing cabinet

But isn’t this how the world works? Technologies come around, disrupt staid industries and change the way we do things. We no longer get around on horse and carriage, bash away on typewriters and take photos with Polaroid cameras. Technology not only takes away jobs, but also creates them. As the World Economic Forum pointed out in its 2020 report, “Such job disruption is counter-balanced by job creation in new fields, the ‘jobs of tomorrow’. Over the coming decade, a non-negligible share of newly created jobs will be in wholly new occupations, or existing occupations undergoing significant transformations.

The fastest growing jobs are, unsurprisingly, AI and machine learning specialists, but also include business intelligence analysts, data scientists, robotics engineers and digital transformation specialists. But these are jobs we know about. Dell Technologies and Institute for the Future predict that 85% of jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t been invented yet.

Large numbers of workers will need to be reskilled and upskilled, and some people contend that the fear of AI is unfounded. Jobs come and go; that’s the nature of technological progress. It forces us to re-evaluate long held assumptions and expectations of industries that are ripe for change. And as long as it’s managed properly, AI can be of great help to society. After all, the World Economic Forum believes “Human ingenuity is at the root of all shared prosperity.” In the 1700s the world entered the Industrial Revolution era, a shift in machine-powered manufacturing and industrialisation that put the world on a path of exponential growth. Perhaps we’re at the beginning of a new Industrial Revolution; the AI Revolution that could change the world in the most unexpected of ways.

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