Will AI hurt or help workers? It's complicated

Scared of losing your job to AI? Take a deep breath: Most employers and business leaders see AI augmenting human workers far more than replacing them. Of course, accommodations are needed.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor
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When ChatGPT burst on the scene almost a year ago, generative AI went from curiosity to broad adoption. Many employers and workers embraced these artificial intelligence tools immediately. Now, as generative AI begins its slide from the peak of inflated expectations to the trough of disillusionment, what real changes are we seeing with jobs? 

You've seen the headlines: AI is designed to help us, but also leads to people losing their jobs. For example, both IBM and BT Group recently cited AI when announcing job cuts. According to the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, almost 4,000 jobs were lost to AI in May 2023. This trend, while small now -- roughly 5% of all jobs lost were due to our chip-powered competitors -- will only grow larger. 

Looking ahead, a Goldman Sachs report stated generative AI could replace up to a quarter of current work tasks. The good news for workers? "Although the impact of AI on the labor market is likely to be significant, most jobs and industries are only partially exposed to automation and are thus more likely to be complemented rather than substituted by AI." 

The younger you are, the more likely it appears that you'll see AI as a help to your work rather than a threat. For example, Luke Lintz, the Gen-Z founder of social media agency HighKey Enterprises, observed that, "Working with AI should feel comfortable because it makes people more efficient. With this new generation on the brink of making up one-third of the workforce, it is important to note their ability to adapt and to use new technology, like AI, to their advantage." 

Dr. Michael Everest, a generation older, agrees. Everest, the founder of edYOU, an AI platform designed to be a 24/7 study buddy, argues that "our platform can help humans do more, without taking away jobs from teachers or writers."

Also: Two-thirds of professionals think AI will increase their skills' value

Iliya Rybchin, a partner and AI expert at management consulting firm Elixirr, also agrees:

 "The key to the future job market is not about upskilling employees as much as it is about 'co-skilling.' Co-skilling will involve humans combining their skills with AI to create 1+1=3 productivity. Calculators did not replace accountants, spell checkers did not replace editors, and video replays did not replace coaches. These are all examples of tools that made the results more impactful when held in capable hands."

Other people like what generative AI can do for their business, but they're in no way ready to replace workers with AI. Stefan Lederer, the CEO and founder of Bitmovin, an Emmy award-winning start-up that provides video streaming infrastructure services to companies like the BBC and The New York Times, said, "Our engineering team has been trialing GitHub Copilot to build video-streaming innovations, and it's a cool tool that has helped our team become more efficient -- up to an extent."

Up to an extent? Lederer explained:

"Like most AI tools at the moment, it provides a good starting point, but our engineers need to double-check it's doing what is required. Sometimes, it will suggest things that must be corrected or are completely wrong. Sure, Copilot is helpful for boilerplate code and things that are easy to check because it saves a ton of work and typing, but if it's relied on too much, then you can run into subtle bugs. When it comes to innovation, coding still requires a human touch."

Lederer is far from the only person who believes AI still needs a human touch when it comes to work. 

Also: CIOs assess generative AI's risk and reward for software engineers

Vince Cole, CEO of Ontellus, a procurer of billing records and claims-related data services, said, "AI has revolutionized the insurance industry by expediting legacy business processes such as claims processing and customer service. This technology enables us to reduce turnaround, improve customer satisfaction, and enhance operational efficiency." In addition, "Generative AI, especially in HR and billing, has gained traction due to its ability to automate tasks like document generation and data entry. It offers the promise of streamlining back-office processes, ultimately cutting costs and increasing productivity." 

In other words, the transition will lead to some job losses. 

Yet Cole added: "While generative AI has potential, it's crucial to exercise caution. Clients emphasize the importance of human oversight to validate AI-generated outputs. Relying solely on AI in critical processes without proper checks can lead to costly errors and compliance issues."

Aaron Benanav, a Syracuse University sociology professor and senior research associate at the Autonomous Systems Policy Institute, observed, "White collar workers in a variety of fields are going to see more automation, due to the adoption of new, generative AI technologies like ChatGPT. These include jobs like computer programmer, technical writer, call center worker, and paralegal or lawyer. The factor widely shared across these jobs seems to be that many of their tasks involve something like adapting an existing template to a set of specific cases in routine ways."

Also: With AI, organizations are now seeing software developers as great collaborators

Benanav continued: "However, it is important to note that there is as yet little evidence that computers can fully replace people in these occupations. That could mean that these technologies lead to more hiring rather than less. For example, as computers make it easier and cheaper to do computer programming, businesses might hire more programmers."

Does that last comment seem counterintuitive? It's an example of what's known as Jevons Paradox, which states that when technological progress increases the efficiency with which a resource -- such as labor hours -- is used, the resulting falling cost increases demand so that more hours are actually being used. Whether that will prove true for AI's impact on work remains to be seen. 

Here's what is certain: CIOs see AI as being useful, but not replacing higher-level workers. JetRockets recently surveyed US CIOs. In its report, How Generative AI is Impacting IT Leaders & Organizations, the custom-software firm found that CIOs are primarily using AI for cybersecurity and threat detection (81%), with predictive maintenance and equipment monitoring (69%) and software development/product development (68%) in second and third place, respectively.

Also: How AI can improve cybersecurity by harnessing diversity

Security, you ask? Yes, security. CrowdStrike, a security company, sees a huge demand building for AI-based security virtual assistants. A Gartner study on virtual assistants predicted, "By 2024, 40% of advanced virtual assistants will be industry-domain-specific; by 2025, advanced virtual assistants will provide advisory and intervention roles for 30% of knowledge workers, up from 5% in 2021." By CrowdStrike's reckoning, AI will "help organizations scale their cybersecurity workforce by three times and reduce operating costs by close to half a million dollars." That's serious cash. 

That doesn't mean companies will be replacing workers with AI. Instead, JetRockets saw 88% of IT leaders needing staffers who can work well with AI as their greatest hiring challenge. As a result, "92% of IT leaders say they are upskilling existing staff to bridge the expertise gap, rather than replacing them." AI-driven virtual assistants will assist workers, not replace them.

They're not the only ones who don't see workers being turned away from jobs in large numbers anytime soon. Jeremiah Stone, CTO of SnapLogic, a technology company already utilizing AI in its daily work, cautioned, "If your company deals with data and you're not thinking about how AI will increase your competitiveness, then your risk of being leapfrogged by your competitors is coming sooner than you think."

But, don't let that need to beat your rivals make you replace workers with AI routines. Stone again warned: "If your goal for AI is to replace your workforce rather than serve as an accelerant, which is a seamless extension of it, then you're going about it the wrong way. AI can lighten employees' workloads and handle repetitive tasks, allowing them to focus on more critical tasks."

Also: The best AI chatbots: ChatGPT and other noteworthy alternatives

AI also can benefit workers in areas that appear at first to be far afield from white-collar jobs. Take construction, for example. Oleg Pravdin, head of product at Lumber, a construction-support company, explained:

"The appropriate application of AI can actually increase efficiency and reduce unemployment. Today, most construction companies go out of business within the first three years. Largely, this is due to inefficiency and not truly understanding project costs and profitability in real time. That means that there is organic turnover for workers at construction companies in different phases that shut down. By enabling real-time true project delivery cost and profitability analysis, AI can help companies remain in business, increasing the demand for workforce."

That's not to say AI isn't a threat to some jobs. As the recent Writers Guild and Screen Actors Guild strikes showed, we need boundaries in place to ensure job security. And, as Pravdin's construction example shows, AI spans all industries. It's not just an issue for a few workers. It's an issue for all of us who labor for our daily bread.

So far, wiser heads appear to recognize that companies aren't ready to turn all possible work over to our silicon-based competitors. Excuse me, our silicon-based associates.

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