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Business News/ Opinion / Views/  AI could change your job but can you change along with it?
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AI could change your job but can you change along with it?

Hollywood’s deal with writers has given us much to ponder over

Generative AI can do things now done by highly educated workers; it can perform mental and creative tasks instead of physical or routine ones. Premium
Generative AI can do things now done by highly educated workers; it can perform mental and creative tasks instead of physical or routine ones.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is going to eliminate jobs—millions of them. The uncertainty is around which jobs will be lost and what kinds of jobs will arise to replace them. Whatever else they achieved with their recently ended strike, Hollywood writers deserve credit for raising these and other important questions about how AI should be used. One of the strike’s reasons was that writers are afraid their jobs will disappear and their skills devalued. It is a reasonable fear, given the rise of large-language models and Hollywood’s reliance on predictable story lines. One of the sticking points in contract negotiations was how studios would use human writers and how they would credit generative AI. What writers got was minimum staffing agreements—for humans. They also got a promise that generative AI will not be credited as an author. And studios cannot use AI to write or rewrite literary material, while authors can use AI as a tool.

Will this be enough to protect their jobs? Over the next few years, certainly. And that might be enough time—if they use it effectively to harness AI to be more productive and let their jobs adjust.

These are two big ifs. The US (and the world) has more jobs today than it did at the start of the 21st century. Also, technology has hit plenty of occupations. In 2023, there were 32,000 people in word processing and typing occupations, a drop from 282,000 in 2000. Similar trends were seen in larger occupations such as sales and office workers, a category that has shed 6 million jobs since the start of the century.

Jobs typically evolve, rather than vanish outright. Some tasks are eliminated, some are added, until the new version of the job no longer looks like the old one. Strictly speaking, the old job is gone, but if this evolution works well, the worker has not. Some office workers are now classified as managers because they learnt to use software to manage human resources or payrolls. So while there may be fewer office workers, there are more managers.

In the past, technological change tended to reward the most skilled, because technology was a complement to their skills. But generative AI can do things now done by highly educated workers; it can perform mental and creative tasks instead of physical or routine ones. So it’s understandable that writers, lawyers, financial analysts, and the like are anxious about it. A recent survey asked economists whether they thought AI would have a negative impact on the earnings potential of the highly skilled. They were largely split: Most were uncertain, and almost as many agreed that it would. No one strongly disagreed. The panel was asked to respond to this statement: “Use of AI over the next 10 years will have a negative impact on the earnings potential of substantial numbers of high-skilled workers in advanced countries."

And it’s not just anxiety about jobs; there is a lot of worry about education. Is a college degree still worth it? Here the surveyed economists were divided—a little more than half agreed that AI would lead to substantially greater uncertainty about the likely returns on investment in education, while nearly 40% disagreed.

My view is that the fear over declining returns from education is overblown. In 1980, college grads earned only about 40% more than those without such a degree. Today, they earn roughly 80% more. In theory, new technology allows humans to consume more while working less. In reality, however, tech displaces workers, as fewer people are needed to produce the same goods or services.

Which brings us back to the Hollywood writers. Once armed with ChatGPT or other technology, they will need fewer hours to write the same quantity and quality of scripts. There is already research showing that writing quality and speed increases when people are trained to use ChatGPT effectively. I count myself among those economists who believe generative AI will lead to rising returns to human skill. The most highly skilled people tend to be better positioned to adapt as jobs change. They often find ways to ensure that their skills are enhanced by technology rather than replaced by it.

To be certain, there are big unknowns. Universities need to make sure that students get skills that AI can complement rather than replace. Government needs to regulate AI to put appropriate guard-rails around its misuse. There are difficult questions about ownership of intellectual property, and who is responsible and gets credit for writing. The writers agreement is a good start at addressing these issues, but ultimately national or even international standards will be needed.

AI creates a lot of risks. Thankfully, unions are leading the discussion about ways to address them. Now governments need to follow suit. ©bloomberg

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Published: 02 Oct 2023, 05:12 PM IST
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