For more than 100 days now, Hollywood writers and actors have been on strike, bringing TV and film production in America to a standstill. One of their major concerns centres on the increasing use of artificial intelligence (AI). Why is this the case, and how much of a threat to livelihoods does AI present?

“I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that … This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardise it.” 

- HAL 9000, the computer in the film “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

HAL was depicted as a science-fiction machine that could not only follow instructions but converse and even question or contradict human commands. Such ability is no longer limited to the realm of fiction, with the growing development and utilisation of artificial intelligence (AI) and its applications. 

AI is in the news almost daily and is the hot new trend in the stock market, as many companies race to develop programmes or applications with this technology. It was being studied as early as the 1950s but the lack of cheap, fast, and tremendous computational power limited its practical application. Theory became reality in the 1980s and its potential was recognised when IBM’s Deep Blue computer was able to defeat chess champion Gary Kasparov in 1997.

The UK’s former Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Patrick Vallance said he thought AI would have a greater impact on society than the Industrial Revolution. And Emad Mostaque, the founder of Stability AI in the UK, the maker of a free AI-image generating tool, has said he expects AI will be bigger than Google and Facebook within a decade. Estimates are that 44 percent of companies are considering investments in AI and integrating this technology into their businesses. This is further demonstrated by the fact that of the 9,130 patents received by IBM inventors in 2021 2,300 were AI-related.

We are now at the cusp of the Age of AI and are witnessing, at a dizzying pace, accelerating computing innovations that will affect how we work, and how commerce will become more efficient, targeted, and personalised. Professionals, workers, educators, and students will all be affected by the proliferation of AI.  

Impact of AI

So, what is artificial intelligence and why the current focus on this technology? AI is the process of simulating human cognition by machines, particularly computer systems, to perform tasks that have until now been solely performed by humans; these tasks include communication, reasoning, problem solving, and even learning. It has the potential to assist humans in analysis, as it propels increased productivity and economic growth, by increasing efficiency through analysis of massive amounts of data and automating routine tasks. 

AI holds much promise for humanity and for economic development but it is relatively new, and its impact and risks have not yet been evaluated thoroughly. But it is already embedded in innovations such as GPS navigation, robotics, autonomous vehicles, ride-sharing, dynamic price optimisation, virtual assistants such as Siri and Alexa, chatbots that simulate human voices and respond to customer calls, data security, and even personalised shopping advertisements and news feeds on digital platforms. 

Amazon fulfilment warehouses use 100,000 robotic pods to pick and transport products for packing by humans. This collaboration has increased productivity by 300 percent and is likely to increase — with less human labour. AI can also aid in fraud detection and prevention by identifying patterns and anomalies in data.

The latest development is that of Generative AI, including applications such as ChatGPT, which can now create content, from text such as emails to letters, reports, research papers as well as images and audio, in minutes. It can help streamline business workflows, and reduce human intervention from routine work. It can lead to the development of new products, services, and markets, increasing consumer demand and generating new revenue options. 

According to a 2023 Goldman Sachs report, AI has the potential to affect major changes to the global economy, including a 7% (or almost $7 trillion) increase in global GDP. The vast majority of generative AI's economic value will most likely come from helping workers automate tasks in customer operations, sales, software engineering, and research and development, according to McKinsey

Banking, high tech, and life sciences are among the industries that could see the biggest impact as a percentage of their revenues from generative AI,” their report states. 

McKinsey also suggests that generative AI and other technologies could automate 60 to 70 percent of an employee’s workload, largely due to its ability to understand language. Employees would have more time, leading to better management strategies and decisions, although primarily for more highly-skilled employees.

PWC’s research indicates that “....45% of total economic gains by 2030 will come from product enhancements, stimulating consumer demand. This is because AI will drive greater product variety, with increased personalisation, attractiveness and affordability over time.” It also notes that the prime economic beneficiaries of this technology will be China (26% boost to GDP in 2030) and North America (14.5% boost), accounting for almost 70% of the global economic impact.

Drawbacks of AI

While much is still unclear about how generative AI will influence society, there are indications that the effects could be profound, if not devastating, for many. Increasing efficiency has its disadvantages. Some jobs may disappear as AI applications replace tasks currently performed by humans. Goldman Sachs suggests that AI systems may expose 300 million full-time jobs to automation, leading to increased inequality, lower wages and taxes paid, impacting government revenues and services. They further estimate that, of those occupations that are exposed, roughly a quarter to as much as half of their workload could be replaced. 

AI may also have a highly disruptive effect on other economies, widening the gap between developed and developing countries, and boost the need for workers with certain skills while rendering others redundant. 

In a Harvard Business Review interview, Professor Karim Lakhani has said: “AI is not going to replace humans, but humans with AI are going to replace humans without AI. This is definitely the case for Generative AI.” He believes that all small businesses should adopt AI tools, such as ChatGPT, Microsoft’s AI-powered Bing search engine, and Poe. He adds that “the best companies will be the ones that can understand how change becomes a skill… Skills require acquisition of the skills. You’ve got to invest in learning.” Thus, continuing education becomes essential to keep pace with technological advances, as we have been told for over two decades. 

At the practical level, Zubair Talib, former CEO of and Founder of Unigram Labs, an AI Tech Consultancy, offers insights into how AI applications are increasingly being used in small business and in professional settings. He has worked on AI technologies such as ordering for restaurants at the drive-through and by telephone, something being piloted by a number of large fast-food restaurants in the US. He believes that “professionals will do more with less.” Most marketers will need fewer copy writers, lawyers will need fewer paralegals, and product managers will be able to analyse data and develop basic prototypes without the need of junior software developers or technical data analysts.

Others likely to be affected by the new technology include writers and creative individuals as Generative AI can also write reports, essays, plays, books, and even create art; web and digital designers, financial analysts, architects, human resource personnel, optometrists, those in clerical positions, and chemical engineers. Those least affected are likely to be those positions requiring human interaction and emotional support or complex decision-making, such as in travel, services, hospitality, education, healthcare and therapy, social services, and civil engineering.

“The hot skills today and the even hotter skills tomorrow … show that the value of human skills is really where the future is taking us,” said Michael Howells, a columnist at the Washington Post. “Trusting in the value of people and understanding your unique attributes and potential and capabilities as humans is really the best advice that I could give to somebody who’s coming into the labour market now.” 

Of course, it is possible that displaced employees may find careers in new occupations, as happened with previous innovations. Researchers have suggested that 74 percent of people employed in professional occupations in 2018 worked in job titles that did not exist in 1940. Demand will increase for software developers, digital marketers, and data scientists in the years ahead for example. 

For those in low-skilled positions doing routine work, however, options are fewer and the future looks bleak. Those in jobs requiring repetitive or routine tasks may have to learn new skills, which can be difficult for those without sufficient education or for older employees. 

AI certainly holds out the promise to make companies more efficient, providing better customer service, offering quicker responses and delivery, creating a new industry, and even lower costs. But ethical questions still remain, in the privacy and security area, risks of misinformation, as well as in the human costs. 

Clearly, AI development is racing far ahead of ethical considerations. What happens when AI impacts market volatility, or leads to more sophisticated arms production? When machines can be programmed to be more sentient and question commands, as in the case of the not-so fictional HAL? These issues will require human intelligence and empathy to resolve.