Once, IBM was the world leader in AI, trotting out robots to face off against chess grand masters and Jeopardy! champions in televised media stunts. Now AI is back in the limelight, but IBM is nowhere near the front of the pack. The company’s chief executive Arvind Krishna sat down with the Financial Times for an interview about his effort to revamp IBM’s AI business. What he ended up giving were grim predictions about the future of work.
“We do have a shortage of labor in the real world, and that’s because of a demographic issue that the world is facing,” Krishna said. “The United States is now sitting at 3.4 percent unemployment, the lowest in 60 years. So maybe we can find tools that replace some portions of labor, and it’s a good thing this time.”
Krishna listed out a few kinds of jobs he thinks AI will take over. Customer service, for example, is an area where AI can deliver “a much better answer at maybe around half the current cost,” he said. Krishna suggested AI can help businesses with hiring or promotions, where a bot can do the work of gathering information and a human assists with a final decision. The CEO also said AI can do a better job than a human employee at administrative work in financial services or some tasks in healthcare.
“There are hundreds of such processes inside every enterprise, so I do think clerical white collar work is going to be able to be replaced by this,” Krishna said. “A big chunk of that could get automated using these techniques.”
This isn’t the first time a business leader has taken to the press to celebrate the work that can be replaced by an algorithm in recent months. AI threatens to replace a wide swath of jobs, including the work of artists, copywriters, paper-pushing lawyers, influences, and even (*gulp*) journalists.
Krishna isn’t celebrating the loss of paychecks for tens of thousands of would-be John Henry’s. But that is the effect workers can look forward to if AI tech delivers on the tech industry’s promises. If the past 50 years of economic history are any indication, businesses aren’t going to pass any profits of AI cost-cutting to workers.
Over the past few years, there has indeed been a labor shortage, if you want to call it that. Businesses have a lot of roles they have a hard time filling, and unemployment is at record lows (though we should all remember that people who’ve just stopped looking for work altogether don’t count as unemployed).
The resulting media frenzies tend to blame the problem on disengaged “quiet quitters,” a lazy populace that doesn’t want to work and prefers “free money” in exchange. More often than not, the discussion points the finger at workers, not companies who don’t want to raise wages to a level that attracts employees.
Rest assured, AI is going to replace some so-called “low-skilled jobs”—and as the technology gets better, what counts as low-skilled work will broaden. Right now, ChatGPT can almost pass the qualifying exams for becoming a doctor or a lawyer.
Before we all grab our torches and start smashing laptops and mechanized looms, let’s remember that we’re being exposed to a lot of AI snake oil salesmanship. Tools like ChatGPT are powerful, stunning even, if you’ve never played with them before. But they are not “intelligent.” The AI chatbots we’re all freaking out about are very good at spitting out responses that look accurate and effective, but they are not good at actual accuracy and effectiveness.
Microsoft’s salivating rollout of its new AI-powered Bing search engine and companion chat assistant are a perfect example. Within days, users who got in on the beta test started reporting that Bing is out of its mind, spitting out disturbing gibberish and even racial slurs.
“Artificial Intelligence” has gone from a fancy name for machine learning to a shorthand for chit chat machines, and the conversation gets muddier by the day. If you wade through it and try these tools for yourself, though, you’ll probably come away understanding that AI is not going to be doing high-level creative work anytime soon. You certainly don’t hear CEOs suggesting that AI is going to take their jobs.
But algorithms are going to change the labor market sooner or later. A lot of jobs will be replaced, and some jobs will be created. It’s going to be good for business owners. It might be good for IBM. But if you don’t have a team of customer service agents to lay off, it’s probably not going to be good for you.