Fear of A.I is really fear of the unknown: Keeping an open mind about the future of work
10 May 2023
There is a debate afoot about technology and the risk that innovation poses to the workforce. This debate is nothing new. It’s a debate that has been spurred countless times throughout the course of human history. At the heart of the argument that automation and technological innovation will take away jobs is fear — a fear of what is new and a fear of the unknown. Technological innovation has been largely defined in recent years by the rise of artificial intelligence and over the last 6 months, all eyes are on Large Language Models (LLM) such as OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Google Bard, Google’s soon to launch rival A.I powered chatbot. Not long after the arrival of this newest innovation in A.I came the warnings of widespread job loss and what this could mean for the future of work. The most recent study to garner attention and stoke the flames of fear comes out of the University of Pennsylvania. The research warns of the risk to the job market and workforce posed by LLMs saying that “our human estimates indicate that up to 49% of workers could have half or more of their tasks exposed to LLMs.” (Eloundou et. al, 3)
Over the years there have been lots of studies on this subject and none of the dystopian predictions about robots taking our jobs have come to fruition. The historical record has demonstrated that technological innovation and automation, aren’t taking away jobs — if anything the opposite is true. There is little evidence that A.I Chatbots pose a greater threat than any of the other the innovations in artificial intelligence that have come before them. Greater automation is not resulting in widespread unemployment, but is instead changing what we do for work, how we work and the tasks associated with that work. The overall number of jobs being created in the wake of new technology, as it has in the past, is on the rise. Innovation brings about new opportunities and without having a clear picture of what the future holds in store, those predictions often miss the mark entirely.
NO SHORTAGE OF WORK YET
For all the predictions that technology would take jobs away, they have yet to materialize. Machines have not taken away our jobs. Technological innovation and increased automation have meant significant changes to the way we work and in some cases a restructuring of the labour market, but this is not new to us. These economic shifts, while they may have been frightening to some at the time that they happened, have had long term positive impacts. In Ontario, in February of this year alone, 15,600 jobs were added to the economy. It marked the fifth month in a row of increases in the number of jobs. Over the last 5 years over 600,000 new jobs have been created in Ontario. (news.ontario.ca) Jobs may be changing but the numbers and the statistics show that they are not disappearing. It is arguable that jobs in Ontario are being created at a pace faster than they can be filled and that jobs going unfilled is a bigger issue than job loss. With increased technology and automation there is increased opportunity for people to engage in more interesting and cognitively demanding work. It can free up time to do more rewarding work, better work life balance and less time spent doing menial, repetitive tasks. (Manyika and Sneader, 2018)
CHANGE IS THE ONLY CONSTANT
Throughout human history, the only thing that has remained constant has been change. The difference now may be the pace at which this change is taking place. There hasn’t been a shortage of work or rising levels of unemployment brought about by the arrival of recent technological innovation, including artificial intelligence. It hasn’t resulted in the net job loss that has been predicted, but there is no doubt that it has brought about change. The changes that have been brought about by technology, like the debate about robots taking our jobs, are nothing new. Technological innovation and automation have always altered the way we work, and the tasks associated with our jobs. Reflecting on the ways in which technology has changed the nature of the work we do, to a large extent these changes have been positive.
NEW INNOVATION BRINGS ABOUT NEW OPPORTUNITY
When it comes to making predictions about the future there is an overwhelming tendency to paint a bleak picture of things to come. If the outcome of past predictions about technology taking away jobs tells us anything, it’s that we’re not very good at forecasting what is in store for future labour markets and envisioning what the future of work could look like. In his article, “US experts warn AI likely to kill off jobs – and widen wealth inequality,” Steven Greenhouse writes, “New technologies like AI often produce jobs that no one could predict – [for example] before the invention of computers, who would have foreseen the job of computer programmer?” (Greenhouse, 2023) Simply put, we don’t know what the future has in store. Many of the jobs that we work today weren’t even a thought in people’s minds 20 years ago. The nature of work is constantly evolving and this evolution has been brought about in large part by technological innovation and human ingenuity. If we cannot get labour predictions based on existing technology correct – any labour market predictions about “emerging technology” is conjecture built on a foundation of speculation.
With every new ground-breaking technological innovation, the same arguments, the same debate reignites. From the birth of moveable type, and the innovations that came before it, through to the rise of the personal computer, the age of the internet and now the rise of artificial intelligence — through all of it — these technological innovations that promise great change bring out the skeptics. There is no doubt that being cautious and taking account of the risks that come with these innovations is wise, but it’s also important to look at the lessons of history and keep an open mind to the positive changes that the embodiment of human genius can bring about. In one of his Ted Talks at Cambridge University, David Autor alludes to the notion that the changes that come about as a result of this innovation and increased automation, whether they are good or bad, will be up to us. (TEDxCambridge, 2016) Economic growth has been proceeded by automation, that has been proven time and time again. How we invest and distribute that wealth, that is what will determine whether we used it for good . Perhaps our miscalculated past predictions indicate we should spend less time worrying about how automation will replace jobs (and what jobs) and more time trying to determine how to address what David Autor highlights as the challenge of, “an increasingly polarized labor market and the threat that A.I poses to economic mobility.” (TEDxCambridge, 2016) Technology is inevitable – distribution of wealth is not.