An old fear is back: Machines here to steal our jobs

The human is being empowered in a humongous manner, and at the same time is being robbed of jobs that used to take care of his or her livelihood.

Published: 28th March 2023 02:04 AM  |   Last Updated: 28th March 2023 02:04 AM   |  A+A-

Image used for representational purpose only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)

Every morning across the aggressively developed world, there are people getting up with a prayer on their lips asking for their jobs to be intact that day. Their first and last thought of the day is one that is insecure. Prayer is back. With a vengeance.

Across the world, jobs are at risk. Companies of every size and reputation are shedding jobs at the altar of an economy that has slowed down dramatically. And dramatic times do require dramatic measures. Social media is today full of human-interest stories from ex-employees of the best of companies crying it all out loud. COL (cry out loud) is the new LOL (laugh out loud). (what an interesting name in itself), a job-loss tracker, has put up data which states that 527 tech companies have laid off as many as 1,53,548 people just three months into this calendar year. Even as you read this, there will be stories in this very newspaper that tell of job loss numbers all over. Job loss is the haunting new story of our times. Amazon, Meta, Microsoft, Google, Zoom, SAP, Accenture, Salesforce—you name any other biggie there is to name—the job loss has happened. Worse still. It is still happening.

Plenty has been written about jobs, their scarcity, their loss and their impact on people. Time then to think of jobs and their future as well. Will jobs really reign the way they did in the not-so-distant past?

I do believe jobs will be there for sure, but there will be different kinds of jobs that will then get different types of people or entities (physical, digital or machine) to do them. There will also be permanent jobs, temporary jobs, gig work and outsourced work for man and machine alike.

In the beginning, every company will have work only for people and then, progressively, in will come the machines, their clever (and insidious) digital workmates, and eventually the “super-sensor boss” which will plan, implement and evaluate all the work.

And as all this happens, depending on the pace of this movement, jobs done by the human will lessen to the extent of nothingness. And eventually, all jobs will be done by machines with machine minds. Not by human minds with machines.

I know this is blunt, but it is meant to be. The fact remains true in many tech companies. The best person for a job is not a person. It’s a machine. It’s an intelligence that is artificial (AI?). If there was a job description for a whole set of these future positions, here is an attempt:

“Looking for a competent entity that is hardworking, intuitive, clever, repetitive, digit-oriented, unerring to the level of zero error, zero bias, non-silo oriented, speaks to all domains that are relevant to be spoken to, is 360-degree in view and purpose, and is capable of making the best decision for the task, job, company and user alike. Humans and machines can equally apply.” Who do you think will win?

Without wanting to sound as pompously AI-besotted as I am sounding, the future of jobs is most certainly at stake at the altar of AI and its many possibilities.

The first such possibility has been demonstrated to many audiences and applications across the globe—ChatGPT. And we are not talking Quantum Computing as yet. That is a movement all its own, happening silently beneath all the noise OpenAI is making today with its deep relationship with Microsoft and its power to energise the ability of every application. When Quantum Computing happens and hits the ground of actual use, expect the sky to fall.

As AI gallops into our lives (more perfect than every version before and speedier than it all), the jobs that all of us take for granted today are going to be at a greater risk of slipping out of our hands. While the first job losses will happen in the tech sector, the second- and third-generation job losses will cascade into every terrain of an enterprise that uses technology in its ambit of work. Agriculture included.

I go back to the era of early computerisation in India. As a kid reading his first newspaper, I do remember reports of a global agitation where computers were resisted in work environments by workers who imagined their jobs would be at risk. They protested hard and long. They yielded slowly. And the truth is that the jobs were most certainly at risk. They were right. Jobs would be lost. Not theirs maybe. But the next generation’s, if not the next. Machines do gobble up jobs. They replace repetitive jobs early on, and replace higher-end jobs that require the use of mind as well in later generations. OpenAI and its many possibilities demonstrate just this. We are going to get a lot done in the future with intelligence that is not just human. In the bargain, the mundane jobs will be lost. Lots of them for sure.

And what was “mundane” in the old days is not the same definition that holds true for the new mundane jobs. The most intelligent, the most creative, the most intuitive, and the most emotive jobs we humans think we do today—are all going to come under the massive sweep of this great big broomstick tech called AI for now. Mundane has a new definition every new day.

Even as I write, OpenAI is creating everything that envisions a world which is going to go through fundamental and even job-wracking changes. Superintelligence at scale is not far away from where we sit today. The human is being empowered in a humongous manner, and at the same time the human is being robbed of jobs that used to take care of his livelihood (which was all about doing “mundane jobs”). How does one manage this contradiction then?

That is going to be the big issue mortals outside the ambit of understanding AI need to grapple with in the days to come. There is going to be a lot of bravado, a lot of steamy mist, a lot of fog and a lot of diversionary talk when it comes to this debate. The end fact however remains: “Lesser” jobs are at threat. And the “lesser” jobs, by definition, are a lot of jobs. At least in terms of numbers. And numbers count. Numbers matter.

Yes, water has a way of finding its own level. Even this issue of job loss will find its own level. As it does, there shall be a whole lot of turmoil, tumult and turbulence. And mist. And fog. The beauty of it is the fact that this is a global thing. Not a local one. The world is flat.

Harish Bijoor
Brand Guru and Founder, Harish Bijoor Consults Inc



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