Generative AI’s Shadow On Jobs

Generative AI might eliminate thousands of current jobs, but also create new ones. How worried should we be and who is most at risk?

Asian Scientist Magazine (Oct. 25, 2023) —Earlier this year as I logged into my Twitter/X account, a message caught my attention: “If you’re not using AI, you’re falling behind. 20 AI tools to future-proof yourself.”

The message was from an influencer I follow who tweeted about various artificial intelligence (AI) tools urging people and companies to try them out. The AI tools covered almost everything from audio, video, images and research, to design, tech and productivity.

As a journalist, I have been trying to understand how AI, especially generative AI, is making some tasks or jobs easier while others totally redundant. The availability of such tools also means that companies can reduce headcount and even eliminate entire departments, by collaborating with AI to generate the same output or more at a reduced cost.

In November last year, a technological revolution shook the world. OpenAI, a research lab backed by Microsoft, launched ChatGPT, an open-source AI language model. It could write poetry and prose, convey philosophical ideas, and hold fluent conversations about any topic. Its capabilities are impressive, and its potential applications seemed endless. But its launch also sent a wave of panic across various industries.

 

IMPACT ON ASIA

A recent report by Research and Markets, a Dublin-based market research firm, has predicted that the generative AI market in Asia Pacific will see a substantial 33.1 percent CAGR growth (the mean annual growth rate of investment) during the forecast period of 2022–2028.

The report also notes that China dominated the generative AI market in the region in 2021 and is expected to continue to maintain the top status until 2028, reaching a market value of US$4 billion.

In China, some of the country’s largest tech companies, such as Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent are investing heavily in this revolutionary technology. The Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology has also announced its plan to promote the integration of AI across various sectors. At the same time, local governments in major cities like Beijing have declared their support for developers in this field.

The Research and Markets report forecasts that Japan, South Korea and India will also emerge as significant players in the generative AI industry in Asia. Additionally, another study by researchers from Universiti Putra Malaysia published in the International Journal of Academic Research in Economics and Management Sciences in January 2023, notes that the success of technology adoption in enhancing the economy will bring around 10–18 percent GDP uplift across Southeast Asia by 2030.

 

UP FOR DEBATE

The increasing chatter about generative AI has raised concerns that while it will lead to the creation of new job roles, it might also cause job losses.

In early 2023, Microsoft made headlines when it announced a multi-billion dollar investment in ChatGPT, while simultaneously laying off many employees. This move was in response to the company’s expectations of slower revenue growth. Beijing-based Shaosan Liu, a tech policy expert and founder of PerceptIn, a company that created integrated solutions for autonomous robotics systems, told Asian Scientist Magazine that while generative AI technology is still in its early stages, it could significantly impact service jobs in countries like China and India.

“I think it’s a pivotal moment for humanity, as big as the industrial revolution,” Liu said. But the exact nature of the impact is still up for debate, as corporations are still figuring out their generative AI strategies and speculating on the possible effects on their workforce.

The January 2023 study by Universiti Putra Malaysia, states that around 83 percent of the region is in the early stages of AI adoption. It also notes that given the increasing speed and breadth of technological change, developing talent who can work with generative AI has become more challenging.

Aswini Thota, a data scientist leading AI-based forecasting efforts for audio equipment manufacturer Bose Corporation, said that generative AI systems will inevitably disrupt the labor market and fundamentally transform several different job roles as we know them. For example, the customer service industry in countries like India, the Philippines and China, which are major hubs for the service and business process outsourcing operations due to their skilled workforce, lower labor costs and language proficiency, will experience disruption.

However, the degree of disorder and role redesign will depend on specific organisational needs and the nature of the services they provide, said Thota. He imagined a scenario: A customer service agent named Ram who works at an online apparel store receives a call from a customer having trouble deciding between a small- and medium-sized dress. While Ram is trying to learn more about the customer’s problem, an AI-powered app is retrieving relevant sizing information and charts from the store’s database to assist Ram. The app even recommends the right phrases based on the data of the behavior of happy customers that Ram can use to gain the customer’s satisfaction.

Richard Gardner, CEO of Modulus Global, an Arizonabased technology solutions company, told Asian Scientist Magazine that while generative AI systems may cause significant disruptions in the job market over time, the impact could be reduced if workers adapt to change and acquire new skill sets in preparation for the upcoming technology. “All that, of course, may change based on regulatory reform passed by politicians and bureaucrats in major economies,”said Gardner.

He said that South and Southeast Asian countries could be heavily affected by the decisions of countries in the global north rather than their own, as many companies with workforces or major vendors in the region are headquartered in the global north.

A prevailing issue with cutting-edge technology like generative AI is that many governments are still figuring out how to regulate it. In March this year, Italy blocked ChatGPT, citing concerns about personal data protection. The Italian data protection authority, Garante, gave OpenAI until the end of April to comply with its demands. Garante stated that ChatGPT collects data in a way that is incompatible with data protection law and lacks age verification. ChatGPT’s access was restored in Italy at the end of April after it addressed the issues raised by Garante. Among other changes, the platform has added checks to protect children under 13.

If Western countries begin to impose restrictions on AI, it is likely that companies in those jurisdictions would contract with firms in countries with more lenient regulatory regimes.

 

JOB CREATION

AI will also create new job opportunities, particularly in software, data analytics and robotics, believes Gardner. Those who have the means to train themselves and adapt to new technologies will find better employment opportunities in the coming years as the economy transitions to a more automated state.

Gaurav Kala, director of Product Management and Global Business at VinBrain, an AI and IoTbased healthcare company based in Hanoi, said that generative AI systems like ChatGPT may not result in job losses in the healthcare sector. Instead, it will create more jobs. “Generative AI can automate tasks such as scheduling appointments, managing patient records and ordering supplies,” said Kala.

He added that it can also be used to predict clinical outcomes and assist in diagnosis to identify trends in patient data, enabling healthcare providers to make informed and accurate clinical decisions. “Generative AI will create more efficient diagnostic radiology system and enable clinicians to focus on providing personalized care to their patients,” he added.

Meanwhile, Pranesh Prakash, a policy analyst and co-founder of the Centre for Internet and Society in India, believes that it’s too early to predict what impact generative AI will have on employment. “Predicting whether certain jobs will become redundant is difficult. One can dream up any number of scenarios, look at the past and the advent of other technologies, and draw parallels. I don’t think any parallels are worth drawing,” he said.

That being said, Accenture, a Dublin-based company specializing in IT services and consulting, released a report A New Era of Generative AI For Everyone in March this year, urging business leaders to lead job redesign, task redesign and people re-skilling.

On the other hand, China is building a generative AI system of its own. In March this year, Baidu, one of China’s leading technology companies, announced its upcoming chatbot called ERNIE (Enhanced Representation through Knowledge Integration), which was developed as an alternative to ChatGPT. ERNIE is currently in trial phase.

Although China is aggressively investing in generative AI and setting up research labs, the technology may take a while to become an everyday commodity and to impact the jobs.

 

A FORCE FOR GOOD?

Generative AI-based systems would require significant investment in research, development and implementation, which could lead to new employment opportunities. Over time, as AI systems become more widespread, human monitoring and maintenance requirements will also grow.

Multiple sources including studies and policy briefs have reiterated that generative AI is most effective when used in conjunction with humans, enhancing their abilities and enabling them to perform tasks more efficiently and effectively.

However, it is critical that all stakeholders including governments and industries ensure that benefits of this technology are shared across all sections of society.

This article was first published in the print version of Asian Scientist Magazine, July 2023.
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Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine. Illustration: Chin Yi Ting/Asian Scientist Magazine

Puja is a multimedia journalist based in Kolkata, India. She writes about social justice, health, policy, LGBTQIA+ issues and culture.

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