While everyone a year ago thought that nuclear war could threaten humanity’s future yet again, 61% of Americans now say that AI threatens Humanity, according to a new IPSOS/Reuters poll of Americans. 70% of Trump voters believe this, compared with 60% of Biden’s. Not quite sure why we shared that last stat, but it seems to convey how ridiculously this new fad of “AI-washing” is taking us over.
AI means both Everything and Nothing
On the back of the generative AI hype, “AI” has quickly become the new catch-all phrase in modern IT, despite being around for 50 years. People have never been so aware of fake news, internet scams, security breaches, etc., as the public trust in technology reaches a new low.
Massive public misidentifications are making the AI term both a scapegoat for unpopular job layoffs and a magic hype-wand for vendor marketing, as literally every firm touching technology is launching their “GenAI” suite of offerings on a daily basis. The pressure is on executives, investors, public decision-makers, and influencers to skill-up fast and learn how to approach the AI craze with cunning instead of credulity.
We must learn to question what is meant by “AI” and stop it everywhere we lack an agenda or a justification. While the same lack of meaning can be said for the term “Digital,” at least “Digital” tends to be used in a positive context to describe “modern technology,” whereas “AI” is currently being used to describe pretty much anything. AI’s use has become so vague it essentially means “modern computing” in many cases.
However, AI is bloody everywhere
Since the public release of ChatGPT in November, “AI” has been snowballing in usage and popularity. Take a simple Google trend search, and you’ll see the meteoric rise of the term, with “AI” quadrupling since November. In this timespan, most people everywhere have encountered it.
Whether you are a business leader looking for the next innovation to drive profit or cut costs or a parent to a school child getting ready for exams, AI has been doing the rounds at dinner tables and coffee meetings as well as getting a high share of attention on mainstream TV news, from journalists and politicians across the globe. Even many people’s grandparents ask about it as if it’s some sudden new thing.
AI becomes a fashionable excuse to sack people
Back in the days when jobs were being cut because of “outsourcing,” there was always political uproar, and evil corporates were vilified for destroying livelihoods to save a few dirty dollars. I’ve even had protesters demonstrating outside of conferences with the “O” word plastered over them. Suddenly these same corporates (most of whom have already outsourced staff to the bone) are victims of the evil realities of technology where they have no choice but then whack thousands more “because of AI”. Puh-lease… is AI now some dreaded disease inflicted on our corporations where we have no choice but to fire people to survive? Talk about AI-washing our way to Disneyland of Delusion…
For example, in a recent article, BBC explained how Telecom giant BT was planning to cut 55.000 jobs during this decade, with more than 10000 of these coming “from using new tech including AI.” However, the largest bulk of the 55,000 layoffs is projected to stem from BT finishing the rollout of fiber technology, a massive long-term strategic project involving thousands of workers. In turn, the success of this project would further reduce maintenance needs due to fiber’s higher durability.
The story was thus, in essence, about technology efficiency gains, reduced waste, and the success of a strategic project – 15,000 layoffs would come from finalizing the project, and 10,000 from reduced maintenance. What was the headline of this article?: “BT to cut 55,000 jobs with up to a fifth replaced by AI”. While most BT cuts have nothing to do with AI, AI is still in the headline. A more accurate headline for the BBC article could have been: “BT to cut 25,000 jobs due to fiber technology” – it could even get a positive spin: “BT to reduce waste and cut cost due to low-maintenance fiber technology.”
We are yet to see any materialized mass layoffs directly related to AI
We are likely to see increases in these supposedly AI-induced layoffs that are not entirely related to AI, and these will, in turn, most probably also increase the scaremongering across ardent AI reactionaries. However, the reality is that we are yet to see any materialized mass layoffs directly related to AI. Although there will surely be layoffs (like IBM envisioning 7.800 fewer workers in 5 years related to AI), there is no indications that the layoffs will not be offset by massive collective investments made into AI technology (OpenAI already worth $30bn) or other jobs. Goldman Sachs anticipates 300m full-time jobs exposed to automation, and this message took headline in a recent Forbes article in a similar vein to the BT news mentioned above, with AI also here the culprit at center stage. But in GS’ actual report, the prediction is quickly followed up with: “Worker displacement from automation has historically been offset by the creation of new jobs.” As so often before, could it be that we will see more of a restructuring of the workforce than a complete collapse? Very possibly so.
Two primary perspectives, then, are tangible and reasonable: AI will impact our jobs, and AI will spur the reinvention of and investment into other, new jobs. Our first POV on ChatGPT in December highlighted precisely this – that we will see impacts on our jobs and enhancements of our productivity but no actual job removal yet – it is simply not visible nor historically justified. The “misleading impression of greatness” that ChatGPT has stirred (quote by Sam Altman) has also created, in one sweeping move, a misleading impression of AI dystopia. Remember when Gartner said your next boss would be a bot during the RPA craze?
The Bottom Line: let’s learn from this example and keep focused on the task at hand – improving and enhancing the way we work – and stick to concrete use cases instead of idealistic meta-narratives.
As an industry, we will do wise to start spreading the simple word that not all algorithms are AI –and that the generative AI we are currently enthusiastic about is still very much an algorithm. We can be sure the spread of AI as a term and as a technology is not slowing down or losing any steam, but we cannot be sure that the term and the tech will remain focused on the same thing. The tangible and productive AI we have today is getting unhinged from public discourse, and public discourse is power in modern democracies, markets, and minds. After all, we are anticipating a new economy, not no economy.