AI and the job market: What really matters

May 24, 2023

I’ve known for a while now that I need to say something in this newsletter about AI.

A switch flipped – in the business world and in popular culture – with the introduction of ChatGPT back in November, and all of a sudden the entire concept of AI moved from the sidelines of our awareness to somewhere near the very center.

In the months since ChatGPT broke upon the world’s consciousness, I’ve been asked countless questions about AI and what it all means for the job market. I’ve been trying to collect my own thoughts – and the thoughts of people who know a lot more about it than I do – and I’ve finally decided it’s time to get some of it out in front of you.

I’ll tell you right now that this post will by no means represent anything like a definitive answer on this massive – and massively complex – subject. It’s far likelier that I’ll be fumbling toward what I hope are the right questions, across multiple posts.

Over this period, I’ve grown increasingly convinced of one thing: As immense as the job-market ramifications of AI might be, they are not even the biggest issue we need to be thinking about with regard to this technology.

The biggest issue here is not what AI means for us as workers, or as employers. It’s what it means for us as a species. And we’re not used to thinking that way.

Look around you. Odds are, you live in an urban or suburban setting wholly defined by human priorities of safety and convenience, with the occasional birdbath or squirrel feeder thrown in for ornamentation.

Sure, some of us who live here in the Pacific Northwest have sought out settings where you might temporarily forget our utter dominance over the surroundings. In the Cascade mountain-pass town I call home, you hear about the occasional bear or mountain lion, but if any such “apex” predator were to pose a real (or even perceived) threat to a human being, we’d all very quickly see who really rules the roost, who really sets the terms.

And why is that, exactly? What gives fangless and increasingly flabby homo sapiens such a position of advantage over all other creatures? It’s our far superior cognitive capacity – nothing more, nothing less. We are immeasurably better than they are at assessing the full picture of present reality; envisioning abstract possibilities; learning from diverse past experiences; anticipating future outcomes; and crafting tools to augment our capabilities.

I invite you to pause for a moment to consider just what enormous advantages those superior attributes give to you, and me, over every large mammal in the Cascade forest, and over every fish that swims and every bird that flies.

By now, those creatures literally exist at our mercy. Our tool-making capacity has grown so massive that it literally affects the weather in which they – and we – live. And that’s to say nothing of the total moment-by-moment control that we exert over every single aspect of the lives and deaths of millions of creatures in farms and slaughterhouses worldwide.

Let’s leave aside, for the moment, the rightness or wrongness of any of this. There’s one thing I think we can all agree on, even in this era of seemingly endless disagreement: We would not want for ourselves, or our kids, or our grandkids, to live for even an afternoon in a world where another entity had that kind of cognitive advantage over us, that kind of superior ability to see around the corners of time; to assess the full range of possibilities available to it; to craft technologies to suit its own exclusive ends; and to decide the fate of any creature not so cognitively endowed.

AI and the job market? Whatever. I’d frankly much rather see my offspring and theirs living in Great Depression-like circumstances than in a world where humanity, for all its countless grave flaws, lives at the unchallengeable whim of unchecked AI.

And if you think any of this is a hysterical exaggeration of what we’re quite possibly dealing with in the not-terribly-distant future, you’re not paying attention.

So there you go. I’ll write again soon about the vocational impacts of AI. But throughout this discussion, let’s never – ever – keep our eye off what truly matters most here.

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