A warning from historians: AI is going to create a lot of ‘sh*& jobs’

Bob Sullivan

We’ve all had the maddening experience of being shuttled off to a mindless chatbot when we need real customer service help. Few things can raise your blood pressure like a nonsensical automated response designed as a stall tactic when you have a real crisis on your hands.

I hope you all realize this is the world we are hurling madly towards with all the mindless promotion of AI we’ve seen lately. Since the advent of automated voice response systems, consumers have been swearing into their phones while corporations have engaged in a cynical race to the bottom. Make cost centers like customer service cheaper, and profits increase. Make consumers capitulate because of artificial, frustrating hurdles, and profits increase. That’s unchecked, broken-market capitalism in action.  Gotcha Capitalism, fueled by bots.  That’s not an opinion, it’s a fact.  Take a flight pretty much anywhere in America now and you’ll see what Big Data, and advanced analytics, and AI, or whatever other fancy tech marketing term you throw at it, has done to us. The race to the bottom is so real that we’ve become numb even to airline crash near-misses.

And so I want to talk today about another crash-landing that’s coming – one that’s predictable, but preventable if we act.

A billion useless people.

Yes, AI is coming for our (good) jobs. And no, despite what some ivory tower economists like to say, it’s not a given that we’ll simply replace those jobs with even better jobs.

A billion useless people was the headline of one of my favorite stories . In it, I discussed a simple dinner-party question: What job do you hope your son or daughter trains for? At least if your sensible parental goal was a comfortable life, that would have been a fairly easy question to answer a generation ago or so, but today? Doctor? Lawyer? Pilot? Professor? Software engineer? Ask a few of them and you might be surprised.

The real cause of tension should be a wide-ranging study conducted by Oxford University I wrote about in a similar piece. The study ranked 700 jobs in terms of their potential for automated replacement or “computerization.” How likely is this kind of worker to be replaced by a robot?  The results were stunning.  Many people like to think fast food workers have the most to lose from robots. In reality, it might be lawyers.  Plenty of today’s high-paying, white-collar jobs are filled with rote tasks that robots are very good at.  Knowledge workers have long convinced themselves they aren’t as replaceable as hamburger chefs. They’re wrong. If you’ve ever been bored at work, there’s a robot coming for your job.

On a micro scale, you should feel personally threatened. On a macro scale, this is a real threat to social order.  A billion useless people are going to get very angry, and the resulting unrest should scare everyone.  We must start thinking now about what to do with people when a large percentage of adults don’t have anything productive to do with their lives.

I wrote all that seven years ago, before ChatGPT was a twinkle in a programmer’s eye. Maybe you think I’m exaggerating, but Goldman Sachs published a report earlier this year estimating that “generative AI could expose the equivalent of 300 million full-time jobs to automation.”

So, this concerning future is coming — fast.  CNBC published a story this week with similar speculation about the future of the job market, and I recommend you read it.  There are some great comparisons in the story from labor market historians. Sure, there will still be some kind of higher-order jobs in a world of AI — someone has to “prompt” ChatGPT, right? — but the scale of job destruction could be immense.  Here’s one comparison offered by  Felix Koenig, assistant professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University: Just about 100 years ago, audio tracks were introduced into silent movies, putting a generation of local musicians out of work — until then, orchestras would accompany the moving pictures.  Once “talkies” were invented, a single musician could play a soundtrack, that audio could be recorded, and replayed millions of times in theatres around the world — eliminating 99.9% of the jobs for movie musicians.  That one musician is still paid pretty well, but the rest are now out of luck.

And so it will be with AI. On the one hand, there will be a race to get a plumb job as a robot programmer. There could be a few big winners and then a lot of losers. Our economy currently favors that structure, and this is a great risk.

What worries me more is that people will be left to do jobs that are considered too expensive for robot labor.  Garbage collection in messy cities, for example.  Or maybe flipping hamburgers. After all, robots require free health care — they have to be repaired. People don’t. Let’s just call them “sh&t jobs,” which is what Jason Resnikoff, history professor, told CNBC.

This future is not yet written.  Yes, in the past society endured — thrived, really — when physically challenging farm jobs turned into urban paper-pushing jobs.  That kind of retraining doesn’t happen by accident, however.  In between those two events in America, we created a thriving college system and passed the GI Bill so millions could be trained without going into debt.  Today, such a massive initiative seems out of the question.

I believe the coming future offers great possibilities. I think the future will bring revenge of the artists, and revenge of the caring souls.  AI will not create great original art (though it will certainly rip off existing art).  And it will not inspire people recovering from strokes to endure the challenges of physical therapy. Therapists and artists have a bright future. Human inspiration and originality might finally gets its just rewards.  That’s what the Oxford study suggested.

But not everyone can do those things. And we must prepare now for this reality.  AI is as much hype as it is reality — everytime you hear AI, just think “Cloud” or “Internet 3.0” or whatever marketing term you like. But one thing will happen, I promise: corporations will figure out how to drive costs down in the name of artificial intelligence, and the race to the bottom will continue unabated, unless we do something to stop it.  Airlines will keep ripping off consumers until there are rules against it, and until there is real competition.  TV studios will generate boring shows based on search queries unless creativity is protected by labor rules. And so on.

Each time you have an insane interaction with an automated customer service tool, you are seeing a glimpse of the future.  Trust me, this is a future we want to stop before it’s too late.

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