By Howard Levitt and Eduard Matei
If there are tools that you could use at your disposal to make your life easier, why not do so?
While tools such as ChatGPT are already creating a nightmare for teachers, who now must ensure that their students are actually learning rather than simply directing an AI program to “write me a 2,000-word paper on why Napoleon was defeated in Russia,” AI’s presence in the workplace is still more akin to a quiet anxiety than a ringing alarm.
But the question of how this latest seismic shift in the way we interact with the world will change society is a big one.
As we slowly move towards that singularity (whether utopian or dystopian depending on your outlook), in which we author the tools which render ourselves obsolete, people will still continue to need to go to work and the ways in which these new tools interact with our jobs will bring a mixed bag of likely outcomes.
As many employees have already discovered, AI can make their jobs much easier. Programmers can ask an AI to produce a script for a simple function and paste that into their final product.
Law firms have made use of AI for years. Whereas in the past document review involved hundreds, if not thousands, of man hours to assess what documents are relevant, today much of the grunt work can be outsourced to companies which use AI engines.
In both of these examples, AI performs a supplementary role to the employee. It does not replace them. It takes that part of the employee’s job which is difficult, annoying and tedious and outsources it so that they can focus on the true “meat and potatoes” of their roles.
It is here that the best aspects of AI’s integration into the workplace can be found. Unlike school teachers focused on nothing but the personal growth of their students, employers typically welcome gains in efficiency which free their employees to assume more work, accelerating their ability to generate revenue. Or to focus on that portion of the work which provides the employer most value.
However, sometimes this can go to extremes. In 2016, it was sensational news when a programmer working in the Bay Area was terminated after it was discovered that he had essentially automated his job over the previous six years while still earning a six-figure income.
That prompts a natural follow-up question: what happens when employers find out that they can receive much of the same work product without the financial cost of supporting an employee’s livelihood?
It is here that we return to the analogy of the horses. In the same manner that vehicles have relegated horses to recreational use, many employees face the same fate.
We are all becoming increasingly aggravated when having to deal with customer service that is now entirely automated. The programs are slow, clunky, unable to deal with complex problems and usually best dealt with by mashing ‘0’ until you are directed, hopefully, to a human operator. What these emerging technologies promise, however, is an experience of equal value to what a human operator would provide.
McDonalds in certain areas has now implemented a voice-activated drive through system which removes the human element entirely. Those types of customer service jobs are likely to come to an end, much like switchboard or elevator operators.
Similarly, there are thousands of employees earning a living by driving vehicles in an era where Tesla and other brands are boasting about being on the cusp of entirely autonomous driving. While these claims are to be taken with a boulder of salt, it is undeniable that we are inching toward this reality, and employees should be aware that their jobs may be in real jeopardy in a future that is uncomfortably close.
Ironically, despite the outcome of the industrial revolution, advancements in software have far outpaced those in hardware. This means that the AI revolution will be one that most affects professional and white-collar workers where brainpower is key, rather than those in labour intensive jobs that pair knowledge with physical activity.
Predictions abound regarding what industries will be affected, including positions in transportation and logistics, retail, finance, healthcare, customer service, and even legal services.
How to prepare
If you are in a role focused on data management or analytics, customer service, finance, or even health care, it may be worth looking into what inroads AI is making in your industry and beginning to develop and learn skills which you can continue to rely upon.
If AI renders portions of your job obsolete and you are assigned other tasks, you might have grounds for a constructive dismissal application. And if worse comes to worse and your employer deems you too costly to justify retaining, it does not mean that it is entitled to terminate you without generous severance.
In the interim, however, take a look at your own industry and consider how AI tools mesh with it. As previously mentioned, employers (particularly in the private sphere) are motivated by efficiency, and if there are tools that you could use at your disposal to make your life easier, why not do so?
That being said, from one horse to another, just take care that you don’t help author your own obsolescence.