Truth be told, artificial intelligence (Ai) is a technology that must be respected and aptly feared, for its “Pandora’s Box” potential is no light concern. The emergence of Ai into our day-to-day life has been a hot topic discussion for decades, with remarkable applications like ChatGPT-4 only further intensifying the conversation.
On that note, I’ve jokingly — but also seriously — told anyone who would listen that it should be a government mandated requirement for all Ai researchers, developers, and implementers to watch the entire Terminator series so there is a comprehensive understanding of what can go wrong with Ai.
Half-jokes aside, this thankfully isn’t the first time that humanity has faced a life changing technological revolution, and it most likely won’t be the last time either.
The Industrial Revolution & the Luddites
The Industrial Revolution is the first technological revolution that we can look back upon and use as a rough blueprint for what may happen to our modern global society as Ai becomes more and more commonplace, specifically by considering the job impact of the Industrial Revolution.
When Britain first began using steam and coal power in the early 19th century, there was great promise for what this technology could achieve. Machines once only dreamed about could now do the work of tens or hundreds of labourers at a fraction of the cost.
However, many groups across industrializing Britain feared the disruptions and societal implications of this new technology.
One of these groups, known then and now as the Luddites, saw industrialization not as a step towards technological innovation or as a wonder of science but rather an existential threat to their traditional way of life.
The vast majority of Luddites were fabric weavers who worked with their hands to weave all kinds of organic material in cloth, which, before the introduction of steam powered textile machinery, was a common way for people to make a living or healthy side income.
Famously, in response to the gradual introduction of steam powered textile machinery, the Luddites would go around and destroy machinery and even whole textile factories with the hope that their wanton violence would altogether stop their implementation.
And, for all their effort, their violence came to naught. The livelihood loss that the Luddites feared would eventually come to pass.
Those Whose Lose
Akin to the job loss fear of the Luddites, the reality is that Ai will make millions of jobs redundant.
We’ve seen this in recent living memory with the introduction of computers, which have reduced or altogether eliminated jobs like cashiers, switchboard operators, a variety of technical factory jobs, bank tellers, heck, even travel agents are largely a thing of the past thanks to computers.
To be fair, there’s an argument to be made that these technological revolutions have made society more efficient and cost-effective, and there’s no denying that has been the case.
A steam powered train hauls the kind of weight that would take tens of thousands of pack animals and handlers.
Computers can calculate numbers or pull up niche pieces of information far faster than any human being.
With applications like ChatGPT-4 showing just a taste of what Ai is capable of, it’s almost guaranteed that many jobs once only done by humans will eventually be co-opted by Ai.
As these examples suggest, there’s a glaring issue evident with the introduction of Ai that many a 19th century Luddite would agree with. What will we do about those who lose their jobs from Ai?
21st Century Working Considerations
I remember my grade 3 teacher asking my class to write down and describe our dream job when we grew up. I’m not sure what the rest of my class thought about working, but I remember thinking, “Who dreams about work?” The realities of life have made that childhood thought of mine largely mute, but I captured an essence back then that is pertinent to this article.
Work should be suitable or, at a minimum, bearable for the individual. Ai is already disrupting many jobs commonly cited as highly fulfilling or rewarding. The kind of work that doesn’t get replaced easily in people’s lives
Artificial Intelligence: Programming
I have a friend who works full-time as a programmer, and it’s interesting to hear his concerns about AI. He’s told me that with how things are going, most entry-level programming jobs will eventually become obsolete as Ai becomes more adept at writing code.
This is understandably nerve wracking for him as where will that leave him? He’s confident he’ll be alright, for the moment, as he’s worked in the same company for 7 years and is by no means an entry-level programmer. But, at the end of the day, he is still a programmer. Who’s to say that Ai won’t one day make all programming jobs obsolete?
He remains cautiously optimistic about Ai. He believes that as someone with serious experience writing code, his position will most likely evolve into a supervising role, someone who checks and monitors the code being written by Ai.
Artificial Intelligence: Writing
One of my cousins is a successful writer who’s made a career writing for films and TV shows. She and thousands like her participated in the 2023 Writers Guild of America strike. A strike caused mainly by fears of using Ai writing at the expense of actual human writers.
Fortunately, the 2023 Writers Strike has set a positive precedent for combating Ai in the writing field. One of the conditions agreed upon in the new Writers Guild agreement signed in Oct 2023 were various safeguard measures limiting Ai usage by entertainment studios.
Assuredly, this is a win for writers across North America. Even so, I imagine there is still unease with writers around the future of writing as a means of livelihood. While Ai writing does have some flaws when examined thoroughly, its ability to compete with flesh-and-blood writers will continue to be an ongoing issue not settled anytime soon.
While Ai doesn’t directly affect my livelihood, I can empathize on some level with my cousin’s frustration. Here on Medium, I get a little frustrated every now and then when I see the amount of “content mill” channels that pump out a dozen articles a day that are blatantly Ai generated. It takes away from people like me and the thousands of other Medium writers who take time out of their day to write.
I’m open to Ai helping your writing with minor sentence adjustments or assisting with proper grammar. However, I’m vehemently opposed to Ai writing when I see 5 or 25-minute articles that are very clearly written with little to no human input.
Artificial Intelligence: Artists & Animators
One of my closest friends is about to graduate from one of Canada’s most prestigious animation schools. To say that he hates Ai generated art would be an understatement; he views it as mediocre and lazy, and it’s easy to understand why.
If, like my friend, you spent hours and hours animating or crafting a piece of art only for some computer to derivatively create a similar piece of work in a matter of seconds, I would feel frustrated to. There’s also the fact that Ai art has drastically reduced the demand for freelance art. With events like the 2023 Writers Strike, he and many artists and animators see a society that may altogether forgo human artists, turning to a computer instead.
A Look Back
If we look back on the effects of the Industrial Revolution, we can see that there were tangible benefits but not without profound social and, as we are now seeing, environmental costs.
On the one hand, a prosperous middle class would emerge from many industrialized societies, thanks to the well-paying jobs provided by factory work. Over time, and in many different countries, these jobs would provide a level of prosperity to an unprecedented amount of people. A trend not yet seen in the history of our planet.
On the other hand, we know that industrialization was deeply disruptive to traditional ways of life, expressed most violently by people such as the Luddites. On top of that, we know now that the social environment wasn’t the only thing affected by industrialization, as global warming has been overwhelmingly correlated to human industry and waste.
Lastly, there’s something to be said about the kind of work required for the vast majority of industrial labourers. Many men and women would engage in work that was either dangerous or mind-numbingly robotic, and there’s something to be said about that dynamic.
Suppose people are expected to continue spending 8+ hours a day working. In that case, they should feel some kind of nobility in their work and with Ai potentially automating millions of jobs, concepts like meaningful work and work-life balance are going to become an issue that must be considered.
Hopes for Artificial Intelligence
Thankfully, unlike 19th century Britain, where concepts such as the Malthusian trap were still considered valid, we live in relatively — emphasis on the relatively — more enlightened times.
Ai will presumably make society richer, a natural byproduct of a more efficient and optimized economy. If so, this will present an excellent opportunity for developed economies to invest in initiatives not purely designed for economic growth.
One such initiative should be the promotion and enhancement of the human arts. If the kind of work that actually makes life enjoyable, like artistry, writing, or anything that harnesses that creative human potential, is threatened by Ai, we must do our best to safeguard these integral human endeavours. As Robin Williams once said,
We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for
– Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society
Moreover, there are countless issues today that face our global society that lack funding or that necessary ingredient, human labour. Such issues as:
- Environmental clean up investment
- Humanitarian disaster relief
- Healthcare investment
- Poverty relief
- Educational investment
The list goes on. All these issues require people and their labour to eventually be eliminated, and if potentially millions of people are going to lose their jobs to Ai, what better way to spend your time than making the world a tangibly better place.
Ai will better our lives and society as a whole, so long as we’re careful and considerate with its implementation. We must not callously install this technology under the guise of “economic efficiency” and “cost-saving” without understanding how people are going to be impacted and influenced by this technology.
If the Industrial Revolution is any indicator of things to come, Ai will prove to be a net positive, so long as it’s harnessed properly. Fingers crossed, so long as no significant military power decides to centralize their military apparatus under an artificial intelligence and call it, say, Skynet, I think we’ll be able to look back at the implementation of Ai and understand that it was the right thing to do.