How AI Will Affect Business – An Essay.
Recently there has been a lot of hype about the prospect of jobs all being automated away. People all around the world constantly express the fear that this job will be taken away and that job will be taken away.
As a fellow human being like yourself, rest assured that I share these concerns. I don’t think I’ve fully wrapped my head around them, but I have tried my best to do so as much as I could in the time frame that I started to learn about these issues.
One only has to look at the world of AI-generated art in order to see the kinds of struggles, debates and arguments that are going around the world right now as graphic designers and artists grapple with the possibility that their work will be automated away by art generators like Midjourney and Dall-E 2 – it’s precisely because that’s a possibility that doesn’t seem all too far off that artists are fighting tooth and nail against it.
To clearly exemplify just how good these generators are, a painting generated by Midjourney even recently won an award for its quality through a series of clerical errors and issues in the process of judging that somehow led to a key mistake; the competition’s organizers did not know that the painting that they had awarded the grand prize was AI-generated and merely selected it from a host of other entries that comprised both AI-generated and human-made pieces, unintentionally creating a modern day re-enactment of the day that Garry Kasparov lost against Deep Blue.
Naturally, the event raised many questions and struck a chord:
How could a machine create art? How could it feel emotions, understand aesthetics, make artistic decisions?
The people who asked these questions were quickly confronted with the reality that a machine doesn’t need any of these things in order to create art.
More importantly… How would artists make a living in a world where business owners might increasingly choose not to engage artists in order to create things like marketing materials or even concept art again?
If we pay closer attention to what we mean when we actually think of a job, chances are we are thinking partly about a job title and making our judgments based on that categorization… But what is left unstated in any naive description of a job title is the the tasks that are connected to it.
A farmer does not simply ‘farm’ and neither does it make sense purely to say that a software engineer ‘software engineers’ without reference to what tasks these people actually do on a day to day basis. In reality, the basis of existence for each of these jobs in the very first place is the existence of tasks for which employers are willing to pay.
Think about what all of you here are doing at the moment as you consider how you will perform tasks that will meet the needs either of your employer or of your own business, perhaps both. Chances are, you only seek assistance because these are tasks that you cannot accomplish on your own given the opportunity cost that would incurred, or you do not have the skill to accomplish them.
Well, that’s why we spend money to hire people.
Some of you more inclined towards investments may have heard what I am about to say from Ray Dalio’s fantastic “How The Economic Machine Works”
But well, if you don’t have those 30 minutes…
One person’s spending is another person’s income.
Dalio didn’t observe this himself – rather, he quoted Keynes in doing so.
Was Keynes right in sum, though? Now that’s a separate question – quite apart from that, note that if we consider the nature of the job market, every single job is funded by somebody who is willing to pay for it, for tasks that otherwise may need to be completed in order for the successful delivery of a business to take place.
Over the past history of our world, and also in conjunction with the evolution of technology and changes in culture and disposable income, the nature of these tasks and what has been sought of the people who perform them has so drastically transformed to the extent that the jobs of today look nothing even remotely like they are counterparts of the past.
Take social media marketing, SEO and programming jobs for example. No doubt some of you are involved in these industries today and are acutely aware that they could never have existed a mere generation ago.
These are jobs that are tied to tasks that could not have been accomplished if not for the development of technology to the present day, thereby showcasing that the development of technology does not merely cause human activity and the demand for work to subside away, but also has historically played a role in catalyzing it and increasing it as new technologies develop, generating new tasks that would have never even been conceived a generation again.
This is what economists call complementation, which is what happens when the development of a technology makes it so that demand for (human) work increases, which in turn is what happens when the demand for task completion increases.
Over the past history of the world, complementation has caused humans to always have work available for them, because as technology is developed, so did demand for the new types of work that they made possible even as they eliminated older forms of work.
When the car had just been invented, for example, that created a demand for skilled workpeople who could take part in their manufacture by using their skills to create tasks to move them and to perform all the tasks associated with creating the finished work that was an automobile – hence the manufacturing industry.
Unquestionably, the development of the automotive industry has been a key factor in facilitating demand for the work of human beings, but there has been an unlikely and unfortunate casualty: The horse.
Prior to the invention of the car, horse carriages were a common sight in cities like London and New York, but after the car was invented, the need for horses dissipated. People began buying automobiles, and horses quickly became outmoded forms of transportation.
Once again, we return to the language of economics, this time no longer to complementation but instead to substitution: The horses as an entire species had their labor substituted away by machines.
Now why did that happen? The answer to that is simple. As humans, we found an easier way of performing the task that was transporting ourselves from one location to the next. It was a task that the horse helped us to accomplish at an earlier point, and we were willing to deal with the cost of feeding them financially as well as the time cost plus the costs we would have otherwise paid to NOT clean their manure (see: The Great Manure Crisis of 1894), simply because it was such a hugely better solution to the problem of transport over long distances relative to walking itself.
For the horse, we would have done anything and everything that we needed in order to keep transportation systems going and business booming (I mean come on – we didn’t care about the poop…?!)… but when the car appeared, dirty and polluting as it was, it offered a much cheaper way of getting ourselves from point A to point B that did not entail those costs.
For the vast majority of humanity then, the choice was obvious, and we switched away from horses to cars.
Now what do these examples show us? They show us that technology can both complement labor as with the case of humans working in car factories to produce automobiles, while at the same time technology can also substitute labor away (as we can see from the case of the horses who ended up in stables and as animals for children to play with in illustrious outlets like Malaysia’s Farm In The City.)
And that should give us pause because the same thing that happened to the horse may well happen to us as well. As humans, we too can have our work substituted away. Business owners can now generate their own concept art and art pieces simply by making use of artificial intelligence software without the need to offer payment or compensation to an actual artist.
Now here’s where I come back to Keynes and Dalio and the haunting observation that they have echoed throughout the ages. One person’s spending is another person’s income and every single one of you who is reading this is likely familiar with the concept of spending because we live in an economy where money is important and we trade our resources for the sake of getting resources for ourselves.
What happens if nobody chooses to spend because they can make things cheaply for themselves?
We may say all sorts of noble things about how the human spirit is indomitable and cannot be replaced, but for all of you who are reading this, I would have to ask you – if you could perform all of the tasks that you ever wanted to in this world as cheaply as possible, then would you be willing to go for the more expensive option? Would you be willing to pay hundreds of dollars above market rate for an employee that you could hire for much cheaper?
Are you going to spend money engaging a service in an environment where everyone else in the economy faced with the same set of choices maybe deciding to reduce their consumption of your services as well?
Would you pay for a horse when you could have a car?
I leave that as an open question as I know that for some, conscience may motivate them, but for others, it is not so clear cut and neither is it easy to judge.
In the short term, say 5-10 years from now, I would personally consider it unlikely that all tasks will be automated away which then leads me to think about education. How will the next generation deal with this challenge which will hit them more acutely than it did the people of nearly 5-10-20 years ago? In the immediate moment, it would seem that it is important to develop the skills that make one human and allow a person to proceed by using critical thinking, creativity and insight to be able to make use of technology in interesting and valuable ways even if they are AI-powered to create outcomes that will be better for the next generation: I guess not all tasks will be automated away and that many tasks will remain that humans are more uniquely qualified to perform such as teaching, nursing and telling authentic stories – things that require people to relate to each other as we share a sense of commonality and shared experience; I think the complement effect will target that in the future as the people of the future learn how to better relate to the technologies of the next era.
In the long term though, as machines become more advanced, it is not a stretch to imagine that the scope of tasks that they may encroach upon may be such that there will be very few left for most human beings to perform.
It might seem like something far off or remote, but then I observe that the capacity of most humans to look into the future is limited – so was something like ChatGPT, Facebook, Netflix, the development of all these things that ended up fundamentally changing the way that we live in our societies today.
As business owners and creators who are standing on the vanguard of this revolution though, we should make use of this technology to move forward and to carve our pathways ahead in ways that may allow us to help or assist society at a later time. How it is that we would individually choose to do so is a matter of individual will or intent.
How exactly will it play out? I’m not completely clear.
But one thing is clear for sure. The ability to make use of technology and artificial intelligence in your business is more important than it has ever been at any point of history, and it will remain so in the years to come.