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December 23, 2022 01:53 pm | Updated 05:28 pm IST
It took the writer just five seconds to generate this image on Stable Diffusion v1.5 to show an office dominated by AI — with ‘concept art’ and ‘matte painting’ as additional prompts.
Experts thought that Artificial Intelligence (AI) would first automate the menial tasks. Driving, grocery delivery, and the like. For eight straight years, Elon Musk has promised full self-driving capabilities in his Tesla cars. There has been significant progress towards this goal, mostly by companies other than Tesla. But sipping chai as an autopilot drives us from Marina Beach to Mylapore is still a future too far away.
We may have made terrific — or terrifying, depending on how you see it — progress on another front. Today, AI is writing competent code, producing protein structures as well as product strategies, jotting down screenplays, reimagining our sorry bodies as ripped superhero avatars, generating film, playing music. All this in a fraction of the time it would take a semi-competent professional with current tools. News updates might have you thinking that your plumber Perumal’s job outlook shines brighter than your daughter Paromita’s, who is plotting a career in software engineering. So, is an AI about to make your job obsolete?
It helps to have an accurate mental model on what AI systems actually are. Think of them as a sort of mapping: from inputs to outputs. The spam detector running underneath Gmail is an AI that maps from the content of emails to ‘spam’ or ‘ham’ categories. Dall-E, the AI art generator, is a mapping from English text to their visual representation.
AI systems inside Waymo cars (formerly the Google self-driving car project) map from current location, speed, relative position of surrounding vehicles, desired destination and related cues to the next desirable driving action. Their driverless taxi fleet recently launched in the U.S.
AI historians will record this decade as the coming of age of generative AI technologies. This loosely-defined term differentiates AI models that generate images, music, and text from those that make decisions or do forecasting.
Text and image generative AI models released this year are more than decent at what they do. The proof is in the Gofundme campaign to protect artists from AI technologies that raised $150,000 just this week. Or the World Economic Forum report that estimated that by 2025 machines will displace 85 million jobs even as they create 97 million new job roles.
The lesson from history is that we should take such figures with more than a pinch of salt. In light of the AI advances in 2022, the Davos set would do well to revise their top 20 jobs under the decreasing demand category. They have accountants, payroll maintainers and bookkeeping clerks ranked at the top three. If anyone is losing their jobs, it is the ones who wrote the Future of Work 2020 report: accountants will do just fine (they survived Excel’s best efforts).
Best of Davos: AI isn’t taking our jobs – but it is changing how we recruit https://t.co/CozEn0ih85#technology#wef19pic.twitter.com/qP1IAVXzb1
Rarely does technology eliminate entire jobs. In practice, technologies only automate tasks and reduce the labour involved in a job. A farmer and his oxen used to plough an acre of land per day. With a tractor, the same farmer can now plough 15 acres in the same time window. Generative AI tools will introduce a similar rate of productivity increase in knowledge work. They will also render certain tools and skills obsolete in the process. Such productivity improvement and resulting profit often brings greater employment. This was the case in the United States. Between 2008 and 2018, across 11 jobs considered at risk from AI, employment rates, on average, went up by 13%.
New technologies also create entirely new job categories. There were no pilots before the aeroplane. It is hard to imagine what new categories of employment generative AI will end up creating. Suggestions abound that prompt engineering — figuring out the best way to communicate your intent to an AI — could be one. I am not sold. First, as the AI researcher Andrej Karpathy has observed, such a role is more akin to a psychologist. Second, all we need is another AI that maps from plain English to the more descriptive prompt queries that generative AI models prefer. Ergo, don’t waste your time mastering skills for an imaginary job.
Some have proposed a three-step process to understand how humans and AI will collaborate on cognitive tasks in the future. The requirement comes from the humans, they consult an AI system for a menu of options, and then take the most aligned one and refine it further for their purposes. This is a helpful framework. But notice that AI is not really altering the structure of cognitive value production in institutions.
In the future, there may be little incentive to hire and mentor junior staff. However, I suspect the kids will be alright. What is about to be shattered is the current paradigm of how one acquires expertise. We need to restructure our education systems as well as our traditional career trajectories as a matter of urgency. ChatGPT produces B+ grade MBA essays on niche topics like relational contracts. High school teachers and college professors are in for a rude awakening.
The answer is to become more human. Qualities such as agency, commitment, empathy, and perseverance will become more valuable in the workplace. The down side: we often structure these traits in our first jobs. So, where we might acquire them — when starting out as junior staff is nearly impossible — is a question for which I have no answer at the moment.
As a general recipe though, caring more deeply about your clients and colleagues, thinking more critically about your job and its place in the world, and mastering the finer details of its knowledge base should serve anyone well. Writing boilerplate code won’t get you very far as a software engineer. Instead, start understanding latency, algorithmic complexity, and clean abstractions. Across the board, there is going to be less incentive to tolerate the clever but combustible types in workplaces. So maybe a bit of humility and camaraderie is in order for those of us working white collar jobs.
The generative AI party is only getting started and the party will be mint.
The Colombo-based writer is not a prophet. He is an AI engineer.
The Hindu Sunday Magazine / technology (general) / internet
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