This commentary is by Tom Evslin of Stowe, an entrepreneur, author and former Douglas administration official. It is republished from the Fractals of Change blog.
Artificial intelligence is the same kind of challenge to the (over-) educated class that globalization was to those without a college degree. The factories built in undeveloped countries made workers more productive; they were able to earn more money and raise their standard of living. The goods they produced were less expensive than those produced in the developed world both because the factories were highly automated and wages were low on a worldwide scale. Without cheap manufacturing, smart phones and giant TVs would’ve been so expensive that there would have been no mass market for them. In the developed world, real people lost real factory jobs. “Learn how to build websites,” they were told. Above all, “go to college. You need a degree. You won’t earn anything without one.”
The “under-educated” weren’t welcome in good paying jobs like banking, law, marketing, and consulting. Despite the fact that super-geeks like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates didn’t finish college, even companies like Apple and Microsoft weren’t eager to hire those without a degree even to do coding and testing. The earnings gap between white collar and no collar jobs grew seemingly reinforcing the need for a college degree no matter what it cost and no matter whether it came with any useful skills or even the ability to think independently.
The pandemic and lockdowns showed who the essential workers really were. White collar people could work (sort of, sometime) from home. Police, fire people, nurses, surgeons, plumbers, carpenters, trash collectors, and truckers still had to show up. Was there a loss of productivity from working at home? If not, was that because those office people weren’t very productive in their cubies to begin with? We’re now on the verge of a recession and the headlines are about white-collar jobs being cut in Silicon Valley and around the country. Meanwhile the minimum wage has become irrelevant as McDonald’s tries to keep its stores staffed. Nurses have gone freelance. There aren’t enough plumbers, carpenters, and electricians to keep our existing houses and infrastructure from collapsing let alone build all the projects that Congress has lavishly funded for the future. There aren’t enough police to keep the streets safe nor enough EMTs to deal with the consequence of unsafe streets. Bankers pay more to go out to dinner or to get daycare; and they may not get a bonus this year. The salary gap is slowly closing.
Then came ChatGPT.
It can write computer code ten times faster than I can; and I’ve been programming since 1963. It can build good webpages and design and code the servers to backend them as fast as you can describe to it what you want to do. Properly packaged in “agents”, it can find and fix its own bugs. For me it’s like having the skilled staff I used to have when I managed at Microsoft and our own companies.
I am teaching my grandkids coding. We used to google to find shareware tools or answer python syntax questions. Now we use ChatGPT and get it to write the code we want whenever possible.
Will AI put coders out of work? Yes and no. Those who master the tool will become much more productive. Those who compete with it will be out of work. Because code will now be an order of magnitude cheaper to produce, products will be possible that weren’t economically feasible before so more coding will have to be done and people will have tools and toys which they never imagined.
ChatGPT can write a better essay than all but gifted writers. Yes, it hallucinates; that’s because, like all of us, it believes too much of what it reads on the web. ChatGPT writes good advertising copy and can personalize it in a way that no team of humans would have time for. It can draw up plans for almost anything; answer questions more effectively than Googling, write legal documents, help search for scam mail – or help create it.
Now we white collar workers are challenged; college degrees are no protection. Our former clients may get their legal documents from a chatbot. We either learn how to use this new tool to become more productive or we get job-retraining and learn how to do carpentry, plumbing, car-repair, nursing, or policing and become essential workers. Neither is a bad choice. Not choosing, on the other hand, is not an option.