"Most things that succeed don't require retraining 250 million people."
Without context, the quote above could easily be a naysayer's commentary on generative AI technology. But it is not. It’s a commentary on the future of the internet by AT&T's vice president for multimedia strategy, Waring Partridge,
Incorrect Internet Predictions
The internet, or as it was also called at the time, the "World Wide Web Project," was similarly disparaged by none other than the inventor of the Ethernet, Robert Metcalfe. In '95, he gave it a 12-month life expectancy saying, "I predict the Internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse." A miscalculation I can forgive since he ate his words at an International World Wide Web Conference less than two years later. Quite literally. He put his column in a blender with some water–then ate it with a spoon in front of an audience. That conference was in 1997. In the two short years separating the events, the general misgivings about the viability of the internet were gone, and the web was here to stay.
The Mirrored Impact of the Internet and Generative Technologies
For those too young to remember, the buzz in the mid-nineties in Silicon Valley (and around much of the rest of the world) was all about this new thing called the internet. Twenty-aught years later, it’s hard not to see the same frenetic energy and dizzying pace around generative AI. Other parallels exist. Generative AI in 2023, like the internet in 1993, had already been around for quite some time before the general public noticed, or cared, or had access to it. Around both innovations, there was and still is the potential for enormous good but dire misuse too. Finally, there is reason to believe that generative AI—like the controversial but now ubiquitous world wide web before it—will be an equally disruptive force. This is especially true within the job market.
The history of technology isn't jobs lost; it's jobs gained–better ones.
From a historical perspective, advancements in technology often lead to some loss of jobs and even entire industries. At a glance, it's easy to see examples, century to century, generation to generation, and what now seems like year to year. Video did kill the radio star–only to be gobbled up by the internet less than a generation later. Libraries, camera stores, and the yellow pages met similar ends, as did the jobs of people working in those sectors. Although in reality, those workers were displaced, not replaced. An important distinction to make since, in terms of net job growth, the internet created far more jobs than it took.
What's more, it created entirely new tangential industries: programmers, website developers, call centers, social media, etc. Likewise, generative AI promises to create jobs and opportunities we have yet to know or understand. If you require an example, I suggest you look up the term "prompt engineering," an entirely new discipline we are witnessing the birth of in real-time.
The Internet Created Jobs (and Generative Design Will too)
According to IAB, since they began tracking the economic impact of the internet in 2008 (and its vast gravity well of occupations), it has grown eightfold and contributed $2.45 trillion to the US GDP. If that number impresses you, consider this–generative AI will very likely contribute six times that amount ($15.7 trillion) to the global economy in the next seven years (2030). So while I am highly empathetic to the human element of fear and pain around potential obsolescence, I cannot help but believe there are several reasons to be optimistic about the future of work: better jobs and new ones. This has already become evident in my sphere of influence: product development and manufacturing.
Industries That Will See Growth From Generative AI
Generative design, which uses generative ai, works very well in conjunction with certain technologies, like 3D printing; Because of this, I anticipate substantial job growth in additive manufacturing and the industries that feed into it. In terms of impact, generative design has been a game-changer for designers and engineers. It enables them to mimic an evolutionary design approach through variation and selection for superior results. Effectively designers or engineers input their constraints (size, weight, strength, manufacturing methodology, etc.) then, AI-based algorithms spit out solutions–thousands of them. As one might imagine, this different (but advanced) workflow saves time, money, and brain power. It also allows engineers and designers to discover solutions that may not have been possible without an AI partnership.
The Impact of Generative AI on Industries
As a job-augmenting technology, AI definitively removes dull, difficult, and repetitive tasks in engineering and development, giving those who utilize these technologies more time to optimize and specialize in the distinctly human tasks they do so well. I imagine this benefit to be categorical across many sectors once generative tools are fully implemented. The emerging data bears this out. A new MIT study showed participants using ChatGPT performed 37% faster than those not using it. Their work improved faster too.
Generative AI and Design Thinking
Although I hesitate to make predictions, as we teeter on the brink of widespread adoption of generative AI into scores of industries, I feel it safe to say this—things are about to drastically change. Concerning work life, my best guess is it will be for the better. While there are plenty of repercussions to fear from the use —or rather misuse—of generative AI, I do not believe widespread job loss is one of them. It’s important to remember– machines are only tools and will never be responsible for creating a future in which workers thrive–that job is up to us humans.
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