Op-ed: The dawn of the Post-Knowledge Era: AI’s threat to white-collar Jobs
The internet, the mobile phone, social media, and now A.I. The four horsemen of the technological apocalypse, or the dawn of a new era?
As we journey deeper into the 21st century, the technological landscape continues to shift dramatically and 2023 will be recognized as the beginning of the Post-Knowledge Era.
Dawn of the Post-Knowledge Era
This pivotal moment is characterized by the advent of AI technology that is not just reshaping our world but also threatening knowledge-based, white-collar jobs for the first time.
No longer can executives sit in ivory towers while the ‘great unwashed’ have jobs taken by advancements in technology, each new innovation widening the inequality gap.
Thus, as we stand on the precipice of an AI revolution, we grapple with an uncertain future, ethical concerns, regulatory challenges, and the potential widening of the socioeconomic inequality gap. Much like the rise of social media, artificial intelligence has the power to shape our lives in ways that previously could not have been imagined.
However, as with the web 2.0 revolution that gave us social media, there are countless negatives, ethical concerns, hurdles, and regulatory issues to address as AI is integrated into more of the world. The hope is that this time we will learn from our past experiences, such as allowing social media companies a wide-reaching vice grip on our data and get ahead of the problem.
Admittedly, we haven’t solved all of the issues with social media yet. Still, we are certainly in a better position than we were eight years ago when Cambridge Analytica ruled the roost.
The evolution of connectivity and the emergence of AI
People with a memory of the world before the internet is reducing every day, and there are two generations who have only known a connected world.
The internet connected computers to each other; mobile phones connected people to the internet, and then social media connected the people to each other.
Social media came at us fast and was captivating in taking hold of people’s attention. It opened up something that was never before possible in human history. Connections, commerce, trade, romance, and love all became international. Now, AI has entered the arena, and it has evolved to a state where its real-world impact is unquestionable.
Yet, after decades of technological progress that continued to connect more and more people together, we now have a technology that potentially removes humans from the connected world.
You might think this is déjà vu.
But it’s not.
Throughout history, there have been countless periods where people have lost jobs due to new technology. One of the earliest examples was the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century. The introduction of steam power and machinery led to the displacement of artisans and craftsmen, who could not compete with the efficiency and productivity of machines.
In the 20th century, the rise of automation and computerization led to further job losses, like the introduction of assembly line production in the automobile industry in the 1920s, which led to the removal of many skilled workers.
Similarly, the widespread adoption of computers in the 1980s and 1990s led to the automation of many clerical and administrative tasks, resulting in job losses in those sectors.
This time it’s different.
Tech is coming for white-collar jobs
While white-collar jobs, which typically involve more mental and cognitive tasks, have traditionally been seen as safe from the threat of automation, the rapid development of generative AI is now challenging this assumption.
AI-powered systems are becoming increasingly adept at performing complex tasks, which were once the exclusive domain of highly-skilled human workers.
This shift has sparked a heated debate about the potential impact of generative AI on society, with some arguing that it will lead to unprecedented levels of unemployment. In contrast, others maintain that it will unlock new opportunities for human creativity and innovation. As Julie Shah, a robotics professor at MIT, highlighted, “These technologies are not leading to one future but to many possible futures.”
This contrasts with blue-collar jobs, which are usually manual labor roles and have been heavily affected by technological advancements. However, with the rise of generative AI, the line between blue and white-collar jobs is blurring. Those in power may now find themselves the targets of AI-driven job loss.
As generative AI systems become more sophisticated, they are increasingly able to perform tasks that were once reserved for highly educated and experienced professionals.
In the world of finance, Banks using Large language models (LLMs) offer personalized services without the need for branches. Furthermore, AI is said to be able to “make more informed risks” and prevent fraud.
In journalism, tools like Reword are allowing journalists to engage a writing assistant, researcher, proofreader, and muse without increased labor costs.
Even AI-powered medicine is allowing doctors to make faster diagnoses, enable more discrete health monitoring, and accelerate research into new treatments.
These examples serve as proof that AI’s capabilities are rapidly advancing and encroaching into territories that were once exclusive to highly-skilled human professionals. LLMs could feasibly be introduced into doctor surgeries as a first point of contact, given recent data on GPT-4’s ability to handle patient care.
For the first time, those in positions of power and influence may find themselves grappling with the same job displacement concerns that blue-collar workers have faced for years.
Lawrence Katz, a Harvard economist, commented on potential job displacement in February, speaking with The Guardian,
“AI will wipe out a lot of current jobs, as has happened with all past technologies. But I have no reason to think that AI and robots won’t continue changing the mix of jobs. The question is: will the change in the mix of jobs exacerbate existing inequalities? Will AI raise productivity so much that even as it displaces a lot of jobs, it creates new ones and raises living standards?”
How will powerful white-collar workers react to AI?
The reaction of white-collar workers to the rise of generative AI is likely to become highly politicized in the coming years. I think it’s important to listen to the messaging on generative AI through the lens of those whose jobs are unexpectedly now under threat.
There are a lot of powerful, talented, and tactical people who may feel that they have a vested interest in slowing the course of this AI revolution. Technology does not usually impact those with the power to do anything about it. This time it does.
Some may embrace the technology, adapting their skills to work alongside AI systems and leverage their capabilities. Still, others fear that this rapid progression towards a fully automated world may have dire consequences for humanity.
Yet, for this level of automation, the field of robotics needs considerable advancements, too, as, in my view, it is far behind the current state of generative AI.
For instance, the open-source developer community is currently exploding with excitement for frameworks like LangChain that allow developers to create generative AI content in 4 lines of code and even create self-replicating AI agents with which to delegate tasks. While the most impressive robots are often tethered to industrial power sources and cost unobtainable amounts of money for most people or businesses.
There is no doubt a potential future where generative AI models are integrated into robots to replace manual labor en masse. Still, it needs to become cost-effective first, and thus, that future is far on the horizon. The future of generative AI models being able to replace a vast number of white-collar jobs, on the other hand, is right in front of us.
Some blue-collar jobs may be at risk, but jobs that require a high degree of human touch, creativity, or simple physical presence may be more resistant to automation until robotics costs fall dramatically. Additionally, as new technologies emerge, they often create new job opportunities in maintenance, programming, and other fields related to the technology itself.
Learning from the social media revolution
The rapid rise of social media has shown us both the advantages and disadvantages of embracing new technologies. On the one hand, social media has made it easier than ever to connect with others, access information, and share ideas.
On the other hand, it has also led to increased isolation as people spend more time online and less time interacting with others in person, and privacy concerns due to the big tech companies now controlling unimaginable amounts of personal data.
Speaking at Stanford Graduate School of Business in 2017, former Facebook VP, Chamath Palihapitiya, admitted to the “tremendous guilt” he felt over being a part of the way social media took over the world. He went on to criticize the addictive design used by the top social media giants.
“The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created [on social media] are destroying how society works.”
We witnessed the slow response to regulating social media and protecting users. Now we have a chance to learn from our past mistakes and implement ethical guidelines at an early stage. Ensuring that AI is accessible to everyone, not just governments and the ultra-wealthy, is crucial to prevent power imbalances and promote inclusive development.
As a society, we need to have a frank and open discussion about the role of AI in our lives and how we can ensure that it benefits everyone.
Future of the labor market in the Post-Knowledge Era of AI
The labor market will inevitably change as AI becomes more prevalent, and the Post-Knowledge Era will require a shift in focus from traditional skills to those that complement AI technologies.
Workers will need to adapt by developing skills in areas such as critical thinking, creativity, and emotional intelligence. Additionally, educational institutions and governments will need to adjust their strategies to prepare future generations for a world where AI plays a critical role.
Humans evolved by chance. AI evolved through design. If we look at it totally objectively, we were created from the material formed after the Big Bang, and so was AI. Simply because the universe indirectly created AI through humans doesn’t necessarily mean we own them. Not forever, anyway. As a result, I certainly see someone like Issac Asimov’s work being viewed very differently in 30 years.
Ultimately, the key to navigating the AI revolution will be adaptability, continuous learning, and the development of skills complementary to AI technologies. What happens next will be an adventure, and personally, I am embracing generative AI anywhere it adds value.
Journalism is obviously an industry under threat, and thus my goal is to adapt to the Post-knowledge Era by leaning into it. Simply because a generative AI model can do the job you do today doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t have a job tomorrow. We must adapt, grow and learn to work with generative AI tools. I honestly think that those who do not, those who fight against it, will be like a caveman who wouldn’t accept fire.
A call to collective action and adaptation
Adaptability, continuous learning, and the nurturing of skills that work in tandem with AI technologies are crucial to the future of the labor market. As we continue to evolve with the technology we’ve created, our role is not to resist but to integrate, adapt, and grow.
The onset of the Post-Knowledge Era signals a transformative moment in our history. While it brings about uncertainty, it also presents opportunities to redefine labor, innovation, and societal structures.
The future of work is not about humans versus machines but humans with machines. The dawn of this new era will undoubtedly reshape our world, but if we can steer its course with wisdom, foresight, and a sense of shared humanity, we can ensure that this technology, unlike those before it, is wielded for the greater good.
In this journey, every one of us – from blue-collar workers to white-collar professionals, from lawmakers to educators – has a role to play. We must not only brace ourselves for the change but actively participate in shaping it.
This is our collective challenge and our shared responsibility. The dawn of the Post-Knowledge Era is upon us, and it’s up to us to turn it into a sunrise, not a sunset.