Innovation and technological development inevitably spark backlash. The most famous example of opposition to automation is the Luddite movement. Before the industrial revolution, most weaving was done by hand. However, the introduction of machines such as the spinning mule and the Jacquard loom led to these workers becoming increasingly replaceable. Their situation grew so desperate that they resorted to violence, conducting raids on factories under the orders of General Ludd (who may have been made up to rally unemployed weavers). The best efforts of the Luddites weren’t enough. Their movement was crushed by the military and automation marched on.
Most Stork readers probably think they’re safe from such a fate. They expect to become highly skilled, highly educated workers who will perform tasks that machines would struggle to take over. There is evidence that being highly educated lowers the risk of being replaced. The WEF has found that during the 1990s and 2000s, automation negatively impacted primarily low-skilled workers. However, high-skilled workers won’t be safe for much longer. Recent advances in AI and machine learning will soon put them in the crosshairs of automation.
We’ve all heard stories about parents pushing their children to study medicine or law because it would give them highly paid and stable jobs. This is no longer true. AI-based diagnostic tools are now able to compete with human radiologists and pathologists in detecting cancers, genetic disorders, and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. In one lung cancer study, an AI outperformed every participating medical professional. Meanwhile, tools such as ROSS and Lex Machina can analyse legal cases more efficiently and cheaply than humans. Other AIs used in law can draft and review contracts, a time-consuming process that usually requires a professional. These advancements suggest that paralegals and legal researchers could become obsolete in the near future.
Even creative industries are no longer safe from automation. AI art generators can help people without any talent or prior experience create professional-looking digital images, simply by inputting prompts. This process can easily take the place of commissions, which is how half of artists make money. Images generated through AI tools can be extremely high quality; there have even been cases of AI-generated pieces winning first-place prizes in art competitions.
When considering what this means for the future, it’s common to highlight the positives and offer reassurances. Forbes has written about how AI could increase global GDP by 26% by 2030, leading to long-term economic growth and possibly creating as many jobs as it destroys. Many students have probably already begun feeling the positive impacts of generative AI. ChatGPT has made writing essays much easier. I don’t know how to create digital art alone, but using IMGCREATOR enabled me to make the cover image for this article in under two minutes. However, it’s important to remember that automation will also leave a lot of us behind.
Even if AI tools eventually create more jobs than they destroy, the effects of structural unemployment on professionals can’t be ignored. Structural unemployment occurs when people are laid off because their skills are no longer relevant. It can be particularly long-lasting because workers must be retrained before they can get another job. This is particularly concerning for professionals, who have invested a lot of time and money into cultivating their skills. For example, becoming a radiologist can take 15 years of education and training. Radiologists and other highly specialised professionals lose these considerable investments when they are forced to retrain and find a different job. Furthermore, unless they decide to spend several more years in education retraining, they are unlikely to ever get a comparably high-paying job. Professionals displaced by AI are likely to face permanently worse outcomes as a result.
What can we do to prevent this from happening? First of all, students can do everything they can to pursue a career that won’t be derailed by AI. The most obvious example of this would be to study coding or maybe even machine learning. The tech industry is expected to grow in the future, with demand for jobs such as information security analyst projected to increase by 33.3% in the US. Furthermore, it makes intuitive sense to assume that some people will always be needed to program AI. However, none of this is guaranteed. The work done by tech professionals such as information security analysts could eventually be automated. Some have suggested that deep learning could be used in cyber defence and ethical hacking. There are already tools that can create code, potentially posing a future threat to software developers. Some researchers are even running projects aimed at teaching AI how to create itself.
There aren’t any safe bets when it comes to choosing a future-proof career. Instead of desperately and futilely trying to avoid choosing the wrong one, we should acknowledge that we will all need retraining at some point. If we want to avoid the fate of the Luddites, we need to make this process as easy and accessible as possible. Currently, there are several retraining programs aimed at workers displaced by AI, such as the American AI initiative and SkillsFuture Singapore. However, retraining programs have also faced a lot of criticism for failing to help most workers move to a new field. It’s important to pressure firms and governments to not only provide more initiatives but also to ensure that these are quality services. Workers must also become willing to constantly upskill, such as by taking free courses on platforms like Udemy and Coursera. Getting a college education is no longer enough to protect future workers from automation. We cannot afford to get complacent.
Featured image: retrieved from https://imgcreator.zmo.ai