Is Generative AI complementing knowledge workers, or more often, displacing them?

That’s the subject of a newly published study by researchers at the University of Washington at St. Louis.

Their conclusion is that while generative AI programs like ChatGPT certainly have the ability to assist and make knowledge workers more productive, AI more often ends up substituting for human workers.

It’s another sign that the powers and efficiencies of the AI revolution are coming with a human cost, and likely exacerbating divides between who profits, and who loses.

The study, titled “The Short-Term Effects of Generative Artificial Intelligence on Employment: Evidence from an Online Labor Market,” examined employment outcomes of freelancers on a large online platform, in concert with effects of the recent release of the latest version of OpenAI / Microsoft’s ChatGPT.

Though the study focused on image-based generative AI, the authors believe that their findings likely extend to text based generative AI as well, and could impact a wide-range of occupations, from marketing, to journalism and creative writing, to computer coding: 

“We find that freelancers in highly affected occupations suffer from the introduction of generative AI, experiencing reductions in both employment and earnings. We find similar effects studying the release of other image-based, generative AI models. Exploring the heterogeneity by freelancers’ employment history, we do not find evidence that high-quality service, measured by their past performance and employment, moderates the adverse effects on employment. In fact, we find suggestive evidence that top freelancers are disproportionately affected by AI. These results suggest that in the short term generative AI reduces overall demand for knowledge workers of all types, and may have the potential to narrow gaps among workers.”

From Digital Transformation to AI: Change happening Faster

Leading analytics company Accenture has previously estimated that the pace of AI adoption and transformation will happen faster than the comprehensive digital revolution which marked the early 2000’s. (“The art of AI maturity: Advancing From Practice to Performance.”)

According to the company’s research, AI will be pervasively embedded into processes and achieve a saturation level of use by 2030.

Accenture has called it “AI Maturity”, and defines it as:

“[T]he degree to which organizations have mastered AI-related capabilities in the right combination to achieve high performance for customers, shareholders and employees.”

Of course, increasingly sophisticated backend AI (ie., not consumer facing interactive platforms and apps) has been powering major tech company technology going back to the earliest days of “Web2.0.”

Amazon, Google, and Facebook, among others, have employed AI algorithms and machine-learning as backbone components of their platforms and offerings.

But ramping up toward the end of 2022, and exploding this year, “frontend” AI has shifted the focus to how almost every business and every individual is now proactively seeking out and using AI tools to accomplish desired tasks.

It has opened up a world of work-related and personal productivity potentials and efficiencies.

But are humans destined to truly “win”, via a race that is leading to AI that can increasingly outdo humans?

Though some believe that the course of AI will be no different than the upheavals which have come with earlier technological revolutions, others see AI as fundamentally different, and present novel risks and challenges to human workers—and humans, period. 

One aspect of AI that can’t be disputed is how it is impacting a novel segment, compared to the ongoing robotics revolution in industry: white collar workers.

Quoted in a recent CNBC story covering the growing worker impacts of AI in 2023, employment trends Rakesh Kochhar of the Pew Research Center noted:

“AI is distinguished from past technologies that have come over the last 100-plus years. It is reaching up from the factory floors into the office spaces where white-collar, higher-paid workers tend to be.”

(“A.I. is on a collision course with white-collar, high-paid jobs — and with unknown impact,” 31 Jul 2023.)

CNBC highlighted estimates that about 1 in 5 American workers have “high exposure” to AI—a delicate way of saying their jobs are at risk.

That includes budget analysts, data entry keyers, tax preparers, technical writers, software coders, web developers and others. 

AI, with strengths in analytical skills, is apt to increasingly “assist” and replace these crucial analytic functions, according to the report.

What’s more, higher earners with college degrees may be more impacted, as well as Asians and women.

Indeed economic analyst Cory Stahle noted:

“Certainly, there could be some [job] displacement,” but added that AI might also “open new occupations we don’t even know about yet.”

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