Social and technological changes don’t tend to happen at a steady pace - they come on rapidly and can feel like they’ve sprung out of nowhere. AI is a term most of us have heard before, but until recently it has often felt like a distant concept, and not something that would have a serious impact on the way we live and work in the near future. However, advances in AI have been ticking away quietly in the background for many years, and it seems 2023 could be the year we start to see both the positive and negative impacts it will have on our lives.
The recent explosion of ChatGPT on to the scene is the best example of this. The prototype launched on 22 November 2022, and within a week it had acquired a million users (for context, Spotify took five months and Facebook took ten to reach the same milestone) and the company that owns it, OpenAI, was valued at £29 billion. In recent weeks there have been rumblings tech giant Microsoft is looking to get involved, with rumours of an investment in OpenAI that could be worth up to £10 billion. It’s evident that, with investments of that size being bandied about, AI could be ready for large-scale implementation and the future could very well be now. As with any major technological change, we are about to enter the unknown, with moral, political and ethical arguments likely to come to the fore as early adopters explore the limits of what’s possible and how Ai can shape our future.
Due in no small part to science-fiction, developments in AI have always been coupled with the fear that it could ultimately replace humans. There has long been talk of rogue AIs that become advanced enough to realise they don’t need humans, and so turn on their creators. Scientists from Google and Microsoft even recently said that AI represents an existential threat to humanity, with safeguards needed before it can be adopted on a large scale. A quick scan of the news in recent weeks has seen everybody from lawyers and surgeons to copywriters, and even guide dogs, state their beliefs that they will eventually be replaced by AI. However, it is also clear that AI is already, and can increasingly continue to, provide immeasurable benefits to our lives. So what can these recent advancements in AI technology tell us about our future?
One of the obvious benefits of large scale implementation of AI is access to information. Whilst this has been revolutionised following the development of the internet and search engines in the 1990’s , and made even more accessible with advances in phone technology placing that info in the palm of our hands, it still requires a degree of human intervention as it also requires some degree of research to find the right answer. With tech like ChatGPT, this has been reduced to simply asking a question and not only receiving the answer, but it can also generate solutions to problems. A good example of this is how some software developers are now using it to quickly debug code. What was previously at times a long-winded and painstaking process has been reduced to putting your code into ChatGPT and letting it highlight any errors. It can also be used to generate code, and whilst developers we’ve spoken to say it’s not quite at the level where it can be used to effectively replace human developers, it does provide a good starting point from which you can build upon. With these two examples, the benefits of AI are obvious, but this isn’t limited to development - the vast majority of industries could see similar benefits from the implementation of AI.
In these examples, AI can be seen as a very useful aid for humans, instead of being a threat to our livelihoods. Human creativity and innovation cannot be fully replaced by AI (not yet, at least), but it can be used to accelerate it. Rather than spending time on long-winded tasks, such as the aforementioned debugging, humans can pass this over to AI and spend more time focusing on the issues that really matter. Every creative experiences an occasional block in inspiration. With the use of AI, this hurdle can be quickly overcome with just a few prompts. If used correctly, AI can become an invaluable tool to help us be both more productive and innovative, as it gives us more time to focus on tasks that cannot be accurately replicated by AI.
This does raise a couple of interesting issues, however. The first of these is as we find ourselves becoming increasingly reliant on AI, the more likely we are to consider the answers it gives as gospel. A quick Google search will find countless examples of ChatGPT providing incorrect information in response to a perfectly logical prompt. If we come to rely on AI as our primary source of information, it will become increasingly harder to fact check its answers, and doing so could eradicate the time-saving benefits we mentioned earlier, as you spend more time verifying AI’s answers than you would have had you researched it yourself using traditional methods. This can also give rise to misinformation, as if we accept what AI tells us as true then it will start to hold a significant influence on our understanding of then world around us. This can be used to censor anything the owners or developers of the AI don’t want to put out there, or can be used for nefarious purposes to deliberately spread information that isn’t true. Whilst increased access to information is a good thing, if that info simply isn’t true, or is being manipulated, then this can be seen as a step backwards from a free and open society.
Misinformation is not the only issue to consider though. The wide-scale implementation of AI could also result in not knowing what somebody’s actual skill level is. This can already be seen in the panic amongst education institutions as they scramble to overcome issues of cheating via AI. Many universities have had software that checks students’ work for plagiarism for many years. AI represents an entirely new issue though, as the results it produces are entirely original and won’t show up on a plagiarism check. If a qualification is reduced to how well a student can use AI, it can be argued that it is no longer an accurate marker of someone’s ability. Similarly, if we look at computer developers, how would an employer know how capable a developer is if their code has been, at least in part, developed by an AI? The more we use AI to aid us in everyday life, the less we will be able to take credit for genuine creativity and innovation.
This leads us to the ultimate question - are we beginning to see, as has been talked about since the inception of AI, the beginning of humans being replaced? With the advancements we have seen in the last few years, it is inevitable that some roles will be replaced by tech. For example, take Amazon’s new supermarkets that track what you place in your basket and charge you when you leave the store. These shops don’t require checkouts, and so they don’t require people to man them. The benefits of this for Amazon are obvious and far-reaching, as they can significantly reduce the cost of, and their reliance on, human workers. Founder of New York-based start-up DoNotPay, Joshua Browder, recently announced his plans to have a ‘robot lawyer’ help a defendant fight a traffic ticket in court for the first time. DoNotPay have developed a system that can observe court proceedings via a pair of smart glasses, and then feed responses to the defendant's ear in real-time. Understandably, this was met with a very negative response from the legal community and the deluge of negative letters, some even containing threats of jail time, was enough for them to postpone their plans - for now. There are countless other examples of how AI can be used to replicate the role of a human, in a more reliable and cost-effective manner, and it seems almost every industry will be influenced by AI in the near future.
Clearly, the future of AI presents us with a plethora of consequences, both positive and negative. As it becomes more and more prevalent in the workplace and our lives, we are inevitably going to enter a period of uncertainty as we negotiate the role AI will play, and the subsequent issues that will come from this. Ultimately, AI isn’t going anywhere and we are going to have to learn how to incorporate it into our lives and work alongside it to make sure it doesn’t supersede us. A full-scale shift to an AI workforce is likely a while off, particularly given the issues we’ve mentioned here, but it will play an increasing role going forward. In short, your job’s safe - for now.