A risk and opportunity for labour
by Jason McKenzie
Less than 12 months after its launch, ChatGPT already has more than a billion active users each month. It is also on track to exceed AUD1.5 billion in annual revenue. This success points to its broad impact — so much so that many government departments have blocked the site; schools and universities are rethinking assignments and exams because the technology to track plagiarism cannot keep up; corporations are scrambling to get policies in place; and early-adopters are already improving their productivity and wages (OECD, 2023). This is causing a disruption which presents both risks and opportunities for labour.
Generative AI is a type of artificial intelligence that can create new content, such as text, images, or music, based on the data it has been trained on. ChatGPT, released on 30 November 2022, is a product of OpenAI’s ambitious efforts to advance natural language processing (NLP) capabilities. Their model is trained on vast amounts of data, allowing it to generate coherent, context-appropriate, and often creative text based on given prompts.
It is already clear that Gen AI will fundamentally change the way we work. For anyone writing an article or preparing a document, ChatGPT could likely write the first draft and review the finished piece. For students, academics and researchers, it can act as a guide and a mentor, provide ideas and assist with literature reviews. For lawyers it will assist with everything from case law reviews to document preparation. Even for chefs and culinary artists, it could assist with drawing inspiration from different cuisines. And this is only the beginning.
If this tool — which will only get better — can already produce relatable responses to everyday questions; write papers for high school and undergraduate assignments that pass muster, and draw upon humanity’s knowledge to provide ideas for new projects; then we need to start asking ourselves some tough questions. How will these technologies revolutionise the creative, service and professional domains? How can we ensure equitable distribution of AI-driven gains amongst workers? What measures can protect the rights and interests of those impacted by AI advancements? And can we find a harmonious balance between innovation, human dignity, and shared prosperity?
‘Hope and inequality in the style of Leonard Cohen’ — ChatGPT
Who by the sweat of their brow, earns the bread that they’ve kneaded?
And who by silverspoon born, yet the hungry still unheeded?
Who by purpose, who by promise, under stars yet uncharted,
To a world of endless plenty, where some dreams are still embargoed
The power of these technologies lies in their capacity to reshape the way we approach work and productivity. By automating tasks and streamlining processes, they have the potential to generate broad productivity gains that can benefit society as a whole. The World Economic Forum (WEF) has several expectations. They predict that machines will handle an additional 13.5% of work within five years. As a result, 44% of workers’ core skills will change. Moreover, women and Gen Z are expected to be disproportionately affected (WEF, 2023). Yet at the same time analysis from McKinsey Global Institute suggests that public spending on labour markets and worker training has dropped over the last 20 years (McKinsey, 2017).
Based on 2021 census data, roles like data entry clerks, telemarketers, admin assistants, bookkeepers, customer service representatives, and bank tellers represent over 1.1 million jobs that will change due to Gen AI in the years to come (ABS, 2022; WEF, 2023). What do unions and governments need to be considering to ensure that organisations use this technological advancement responsibly, that workers are retained and redeployed, and any displacement is minimised and managed with workers’ wellbeing and dignity in focus? Equally, what efforts need to be fast-tracked to invest in education and creation of AI-related roles such as learning engineers, ethics specialists, AI trainers, data curators, safety engineers, data brokers, sustainability analysts and remote work facilitators.
Will the workers’ share be just?
Consider the case of Elizabeth, a dedicated customer service representative. Her role could be significantly impacted as the technology becomes capable of handling customer inquiries with ease and efficiency. Elizabeth may find herself needing to adapt her skillset, focusing on tasks that require a deeper level of empathy, understanding, or creative problem-solving. Who will share in these productivity gains?
Or consider Thomas, an experienced journalist who has spent years honing his craft. As AI-generated news articles become increasingly sophisticated, Thomas may find his profession under threat. Yet his skills in developing deep insights, uncovering hidden truths, and building human connections will remain invaluable. Will the gains be reinvested into quality investigative journalism?
Who by spark and who by steam, in this woven tapestry?
Who will hold what’s dearly gained, in shared epiphany?
In tomorrow’s enigmatic circuit, caution is our dance,
Weighing love against a shadow, in the twilight of chance.
Similarly, John, a hardworking translator, may experience disruption in his field as advancements in language models allow for more accurate and nuanced translations. He may need to pivot toward specialising in culturally sensitive translations or focus on providing high-quality editing services to ensure the preservation of the author’s original intent.
Next, take the example of Sophia, a skilled paralegal who has dedicated her career to assisting lawyers in preparing for cases. The emergence of AI technologies capable of processing vast amounts of legal information could challenge her role. To adapt, Sophia may concentrate on offering her expertise in areas where human intuition, empathy, and legal strategy are crucial, such as mediation or negotiation.
Lastly, consider Dr. Olivia, a highly skilled and qualified cardiologist. Her profession may face disruption as AI diagnostic tools become adept at identifying cardiac anomalies in imaging studies or electrocardiograms. In response to this shift, Olivia could concentrate on the aspects of medicine that require a human touch, such as providing more in-depth consultations, educating patients about heart health, or offering emotional support during the diagnostic process. But, which will grow, Olivia’s quality of work or her caseload?
These examples demonstrate some of the roles that will be disrupted and how we must find new ways to contribute our unique human perspectives and skills. Productivity gains from these innovations hold promise, but how will these gains be distributed? A targeted approach could ensure that Elizabeth, Thomas, John, Sophia and Olivia receive their fair share and that revenue-increases are earmarked for worker retraining and community development programs.
Source: World Economic Forum, Future of Jobs Report 2023
Consider the 19th century Luddites, 20th century labourers displaced by tractors and 21st century workers displaced by technology that enabled outsourcing. We have seen change before and the pace and nature of our response will shape the societal impact of these technologies. Pressing questions include: Will government establish an AI ethics board, mandate that companies disclose the use of AI in customer interactions, invest in AI literacy programs and build safety nets? Will unions include AI adaptation clauses, worker education and lobby for ethical AI in workplaces? And will corporations use AI responsibly, retrain workers to adapt and share the gains with the workers?
Who by faith and who by fear, in this great divide?
Who will make the future clear, who will turn the tide?
From the cipher to the code, let this truth reside,
In a dance where shadows weigh, yet the light won’t be denied.
Generative AI platforms hold a mirror to the evolving landscape of labour and ethics. They present us with a tantalising paradox: an uncharted universe of opportunity juxtaposed against the real risk of job displacement, social inequality, and ethical quandaries. We have journeyed through the lives of Elizabeth, Thomas, John, Sophia, and Olivia, exploring how AI could affect roles across varying professions and skill levels. These stories are a window into our shared future—a future wherein AI could either augment our capacities and enrich us all, or one where wages further polarise and job displacement increases. Governments, unions, and corporations must act now. Collective, responsible action is needed to lead this change.
OECD. (2023). Employment Outlook 2023: Australia.
World Economic Forum. (2023, April). The Future of Jobs Report. https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-future-of-jobs-report-2023/
McKinsey Global Institute. (2017, December). Jobs Lost, Jobs Gained. https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/BAB489A30B724BECB5DEDC41E9BB9FAC.ashx
Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2022). Employment in the 2021 Census. https://www.abs.gov.au/articles/employment-2021-census
About the author
Disclosure: ChatGPT was used in this article. It was used for inspiration, research into how previous waves of technological advancement have impacted labour forces, and the poetry.
Jason McKenzie is passionate about the potential of technology and the value of arts. He is a representative on the Australian Fabians national board, holds an MBA from Griffith University, and has been made a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques by the French Republic for services to education and culture.