ChatGPT and the future of work

Dr Matthew Birchall
NZ Herald
27 April, 2023

I used to think that the future of work consisted of people talking about the future of work, and then I discovered ChatGPT.

Many readers will be familiar with it. This large language model, operated by OpenAI, can generate human-like responses to written questions, create to-do lists, and even assist with starting a business. In essence, it’s like a having a digital assistant at your fingertips–and a very valuable one at that.

If you want to learn more about the weird and wonderful world of AI, have a listen to renowned British computer scientist Stuart Russell’s 2021 Reith Lectures, Living with Artificial Intelligence. The lecture series is an invaluable primer to an often-complex field, covering everything from AI’s impact on jobs, to war and human behaviour. He makes a compelling case for regarding general-purpose AI as the most profound change in human history, so hardly small-stakes stuff.

Kiwi firms have certainly heeded Russell’s call, recognising the potential of advanced AI technologies like ChatGPT. BusinessDesk reported last week that they are now using AI to write articles at break-neck speed, turning company announcements into copy in under a minute. And they’re far from alone – even delivery-based grocer Teddy has found ways to leverage ChatGPT to cut costs and boost sales. The list of innovative applications for AI goes on and on.

Although artificial intelligence has been around for decades, the arrival of ChatGPT and other advanced large language models marks a significant breakthrough in the field. With the ability to process massive amounts of data, learn from experience, and adapt to new situations, AI can revolutionise how we work, interact, and live our lives.

In fact, ChatGPT has already broken records, gaining 100 million unique users in its first two months, a milestone that took the popular video-sharing app TikTok nine months and Instagram more than two years to achieve. As a result, experts predict that we could have general-purpose AI within the next few decades, which would be capable of performing a broad range of skills, much like humans.

So, what does all of this mean for the future of work, and how can New Zealanders prepare for the changes that lie ahead? To answer these questions, it’s useful to take a closer look at the historical parallels of technological innovation and how it has impacted the way we work.

Throughout history, new technologies have revolutionised how people have earned a living. For example, the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries saw the introduction of new machines and techniques that transformed the way goods were produced and distributed. This led to a shift from manual labour to more specialised forms of work, such as factory production and assembly lines. Despite the difficult and even brutal conditions in what poet William Blake famously referred to as Britain’s “dark Satanic mills,” industrialisation ultimately brought about significant improvements in material well-being.

The 20th century saw another major shift in production and manufacturing, courtesy of Henry Ford’s innovations. Fordism propelled assembly lines to new heights, enabling the mass production of automobiles and reducing costs. The approach entailed breaking down the process of car production into smaller, specialised tasks, which boosted efficiency and productivity. It even spawned the eight-hour workday, which become emblematic of work culture in 20th century America and across the developed world.

True, the introduction of the Model T led to a decline in demand for horse-drawn carriages and the jobs associated with that industry. But it also opened up opportunities for employment and economic growth in the new automotive industry. And who today would prefer horse-drawn carriages over convenient and modern forms of transportation? I’ll take an Uber, thanks.

The lesson from history is clear: technological innovation often leads to the elimination of certain jobs, but it also leads to the emergence of new job opportunities and drives economic progress. Firms that don’t adapt to technological change risk being left behind, a phenomenon known in economics as “creative destruction.”

This insight is relevant to the New Zealand economy today, much as it was during Henry Ford’s era or the industrial revolution that preceded it.

Critics of “techno-utopianism” express concerns about the impact of AI on jobs, as they fear that many roles will become obsolete and lead to widespread job losses and social disruption. However, this argument confuses technology taking over specific tasks with taking over entire jobs. And it also overlooks AI’s benefits.

Take the potential productivity gains. AI can bolster New Zealand’s productive capacity by reducing labour unit costs, creating new jobs and helping boost output for non-displaced workers. This is perhaps the perennial public policy challenge for New Zealand, and so novel tools to help the country turn around its poor productivity performance are much welcome. According to Goldman Sachs analysts, AI could increase world GDP by around 1.4 percentage points per year, or roughly $7 trillion USD. New Zealand Inc. has much to gain by utilising this new technology.

Just consider all those menial tasks that could be automated: data entry, email, customer service engagement, market research, and so on. You name it, AI will soon be able to do it. Getting a machine to complete these pesky tasks will save time and energy and free workers to focus on more creative and complex tasks, leading to better outcomes for businesses and workers alike. And that’s before we consider all the advances in fields such as the medical sciences and robotics that AI makes possible.

Artificial intelligence is the latest in a long line of technological advancements that have transformed the world of work, and it is likely to have a profound impact on employment and the economy in the years to come.

New Zealand businesses that embrace this new wave of change will likely benefit from the AI revolution. But those who resist, may struggle to remain competitive in an increasingly automated and digital landscape.

If you’re unsure, just ask ChatGPT about the Luddites.

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