AI Won’t Take Over the Workplace, Even If People Want It To
The hopes and the fears about technology are substantively identical.
According to a recent survey of over a thousand adults, two thirds of them “believe AI could do their job.” Evidently, the majority of workers really think that their job is so monotonous and simple that it could be entirely automated.
There are a few ways to look at this, and none of them are positive. On its surface, the survey indicates that the American economy is reaching a point where all jobs can be safely outsourced to robots. Whereas technological innovation used to liberate laborers from brutal drudgery, today’s AI Revolution promises to liberate them from work entirely.
Before people don their sassy sweats and make themselves comfortable on the couch as they wait for the monthly UBI check, they should know: Nothing about today’s AI will make work obsolete for the foreseeable future. Most people’s jobs actually consist of more than writing formulaic emails to people who don’t read them, and, even for such jobs, someone has to plug in the prompts and names in the first place.
This brings up another way of looking at this survey, which is the fear that arises from ignorance. As the cliche goes, people fear what they don’t understand, and most people don’t actually understand how artificial intelligence works. Ironically, as society becomes more scientifically advanced, people take a far less scientific view of new technology. Raised on abstractions and fantastical superhero movies, most modern Americans basically see their devices as magic.
Thus, it feels natural to assume computers will run themselves and independently make decisions. It doesn’t occur to anyone that computers have to actually be programmed to do this and the absence of a mind precludes any kind of agency. At its heart, AI is just a fancy calculator.
That’s why the most any informed critic can say about AI is that those who use it have a significant advantage over those who don’t. Just as a man with an automated forklift has an advantage over a man with only his two hands, so too does an office worker with ChatGPT drafting soulless notifications over the coworker debating which emoji he should use to lighten the mood of his online missives.
That said, there is yet another, much more likely explanation for why someone thinks AI could replace them: In his heart of hearts, he really wants it to. Even if this means becoming utterly useless to the world and a slave to the machine, people today still prefer this outcome over making themselves useful and being responsible for themselves.
This could be seen a few years ago when office workers around the world were quietly celebrating the lockdowns caused by Covid. True, a handful of people feared contracting a deadly respiratory virus, but most people simply delighted in working remotely, doing the bare minimum, and receiving a stimulus check from the government for their supposed hardship.
When it was clear that it was safe to return to work and have physical contact with others, many people resisted as best they could. It’s safe to assume most of them didn’t find any fulfillment from their job, nor did they feel any sense of community from working side by side with their colleagues. Americans may be among the hardest workers in the world, but many of them paradoxically hate working.
I personally observed this years ago as a member of my school district’s textbook adoption committee. Our job was to review various English textbooks, listen to the presentations given by publishers, and have a discussion over how textbooks would figure into classroom instruction for the next decade. Despite having much better options, most committee members settled on one particular textbook with mediocre texts, useless ancillaries, and clunky formatting. Why? Because it also had an online feature that could automatically grade student essays.
It turns out that this “grading software” was just a grammar and spell checker. Even so, the committee still voted for it. They were so sold on the prospect of a machine doing their job that all objectivity completely vanished—even when they learned the truth about it.
More recently, I saw this vain pursuit for an essay grading machine appear in an online discussion between AP English teachers. The original post mentioned ChatGPT, which led me to think that it would be about the growing problem of students using AI to cheat on their essays. Instead, it was a teacher asking what AI program English teachers like to use for grading their students’ essays.
To my surprise and disappointment, many teachers were actually using AI to do their jobs. That is to say, they were relying on the generalized and mostly useless feedback of AI writing programs—which still are mostly grammar and spelling checkers—to help their students become better writers.
I then wondered what would happen if both the student’s essay and the teacher’s feedback were both AI—would that qualify as a computer finally achieving self-awareness?
Grading essays is probably the most important thing an English teacher can do. Yes, it’s exhausting and frequently overwhelming, but it’s an essential and fundamentally human task that can’t be outsourced. Writing is thinking, and teachers simply can’t train their students to think clearly and logically if they never read their essays. Moreover, establishing that crucial connection with students is lost when the students’ voices go unheard; the kids might as well teach themselves at that point.
The same logic applies to workers in most industries. In hoping that a computer can think for them, they somehow miss the obvious points that (1) computers will never be able to think and (2) thinking is ultimately what gives life meaning and makes community possible. To pretend otherwise and hope for an AI takeover is effectively embracing nihilism.
For that reason, it’s best to put AI in its proper place and refocus on the marvelous capacities of human beings to use their minds and connect with one another. All jobs should cater to these capacities as much as possible. Insofar as AI can help in this endeavor, it is useful. Otherwise, people should just stop fussing over the hype and get back to work. In the end, they’ll be much happier for it.
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