March 16, 2023: Only three months into its existence, the AI-based chatbot ChatGPT has become a major talking point. While a deluge of newspaper reports, television chat shows, and social media posts are animatedly dissecting what this nascent tech marvel can achieve, there are fears that ChatGPT could take away millions of jobs.
The high-octane debate in the mainstream media about professions that could be ruled by this AI tool at the cost of human resources seems to be a calculated campaign to unnerve the employee class.
All over the world, the working class is eyeing the new tech with suspicion, fearing it would indeed trigger greater unemployment. Thus, the groundwork has apparently been done for ruthless corporate actions to throw more employees under the bus at a time when mass lay-offs have occurred across sectors.
The mainstream media’s rush to project ChatGPT as a potential job-killer is highly convenient for these corporate empires, which want the masses to blame rising unemployment only on new technologies and not on the business barons who would take the harsh decision to fire people.
According to the orchestrated narrative, all jobs were secure with a capital ‘S’ in the past, and would have remained so in the future, but for the arrival of the devil christened ChatGPT.
Interestingly, this anti-employee stance of MNCs and other big businesses in recent times as well as in past decades has been manifested infinite times, with workers routinely finding themselves at the wrong end of summary retrenchments, salary cuts, and tyrannical working conditions.
In this article, we will try to throw light on the historical perspective of how every advancement in science and technology has been used by the corporate class to take away jobs, and eventually maximise profits. We will also take a look at the mass lay-offs in various sectors in recent times before ChatGPT arrived.
MAKING SENSE OF
THE NEW SENSATION
Let us first try to understand in layman’s language what ChatGPT is. As we know, it is technically defined as an AI-based chatbot. So, what is a bot? It is a short form for ‘robot’. It is a software programme that performs automated, pre-defined tasks repetitively. Bots imitate or replace human user behaviour, and since they are automated, they operate much faster than human users.
So, what is a chatbot? At the basic level, it is a computer programme that simulates and processes human conversation (either written or spoken), allowing humans to interact with digital devices as if they were communicating with a real person. For example, most banks and mobile service providers use chatbots that engage in conversation with customers on online platforms such as WhatsApp as per some pre-programmed information.
Now, let’s look at ChatGPT. It is a large language model chatbot developed by San Francisco startup OpenAI in November 2022. The revolutionary feature of ChatGPT is that it is trained to learn what humans essentially mean when they ask a question. It is capable of interacting in conversational dialogue and provides responses that can appear surprisingly human.
“We’ve trained a model called ChatGPT, which interacts in a conversational way. The dialogue format makes it possible for ChatGPT to answer follow-up questions, admit its mistakes, challenge incorrect premises, and reject inappropriate requests,” the OpenAI website says about the new phenomenon.
Silicon Valley elites Sam Altman, Greg Brockman, Elon Musk, Reid Hoffman, Jessica Livingston, and Peter Thiel, alongside three companies – Amazon Web Services (AWS), Infosys, and YC Research – founded OpenAI in December 2015. The total fund commitment was $1 billion. Musk stepped down as a board director in 2018, but remained a donor.
Microsoft, which invested $1 billion in OpenAI in 2019 and pumped in more money into the AI research company in 2021, announced the third phase of their partnership in January through a “multi-year, multibillion-dollar investment. Though both parties have remained tight-lipped on the quantum of the latest investment, multiple media reports have claimed it is worth $10 billion.
Now, let’s turn to the hot topic of ChatGPT triggering job losses. Analysts have been claiming that professionals and employees, particularly the white-collar ones, could face the heat in at least 10 sectors, such as:
• Techies like coders, software developers, and data analysts.
• Media professionals (advertising, content creation, technical writing, journalism).
• Legal experts, including paralegals and legal assistants.
• Market research analysts.
• Teachers in schools and colleges.
• Finance sector professionals (financial analysts and personal financial advisers).
• Stock traders.
• Graphic designers.
BEFORE CHATGPT HAPPENED
A closer look at the state of affairs in these sectors, however, shows that before ChatGPT arrived, job security was perennially a pipe-dream. In fact, 2022 saw the end of Covid-related lockdowns and the resumption of economic activity. Yet, there was no escape from job cuts. Through the year, nearly 50 major corporations sacked more than 90,000 staff across the world.
Let’s discuss in detail the dire situation in three sectors – tech, media, and legal.
As reported in Empire Diaries recently, Big Tech giants have been on a brutal sacking spree from the end of last year. While Microsoft decided to fire 10,000 employees by March 31, companies such as Alphabet, Amazon, Meta, Twitter, Snap, HP, IBM, and SAP have booted out thousands of employees citing economic slowdown.
In fact, Big Tech’s mass culling is still underway as you’re reading this, with Meta this week announcing a second wave of massive firings after the first round in November.
Interestingly, it’s not that these companies were going through financial crises. According to some analysts, many of these companies were sitting on piles of cash in February last year. Some of them have actually been doing decent business.
The double standards of these opportunist tech firms have been exposed. Two days before announcing the layoffs, Microsoft outlined plans of investing in OpenAI, a deal reportedly worth $ 10 billion.
Law firms have also been firing, while simultaneously hiring strategically. In the US, Goodwin Procter announced layoffs in January, while hiring 14 lawyers during the same month. The sackings are “people who are not necessarily producing revenue for the firm, but just [serving as] cost centres”, said Mary Rosenfeld D’Eramo, vice president of operations at legal recruiting firm Mestel & Co, in a ruthless remark.
Among other US law firms, Stroock & Stroock & Lavan retrenched nine lawyers and 18 staff in January, while Davis Wright Tremaine gave the pink slip to 21 professional staff in February, the same month Shearman & Sterling showed the door to 38 attorneys and professionals.
Turning to the media scene in India, chilling statistics from the last few years provided by the venerated think-tank CMIE (Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy) say a lot. A survey undertaken by the research group in 2021 found that at least 78% of those working in the media and publishing industry lost their jobs over the previous five years.
According to the survey, the media and publishing industry employed over 10.3 lakh people across India in September 2016, but in August 2021, it employed only 2.3 lakh people.
While the figure may seem scary, it is also a fact that the time period of the survey includes the first and second Covid wave, when a large number of people in the media and publishing business were laid off.
So, it’s now clear that even in a world without ChatGPT, people working for major corporations were losing jobs, and quite regularly. In fact, it’s worth travelling back in time to see things in the historical perspective, right from the days of the First Industrial Revolution.
The First Industrial Revolution began in England around 1750-1760 and continued till 1820-1840. Today, it is celebrated as upgrading the world of work from hand-based jobs to mechanisation. However, mainstream history hardly documents possible job losses caused by the rise of mechanisation, instead, celebrating the birth of new machine-centric jobs.
It was the same story with the Second Industrial Revolution as well, with mainstream historians hardly documenting possible job losses resulting from newer, smarter inventions and discoveries that were drastically changing the world of work.
The Third Industrial Revolution, or the digital-internet revolution, saw the world move from analogue systems to digital systems. While the focus was almost entirely on the birth of digital-world jobs, it’s hardly documented how the rise of the computer could have possibly led to countless job losses.
And now we are going through the Fourth Industrial Revolution, also called 4IR or Industry 4.0, which is seeing high-speed, AI-centric, web-based automation systems taking over the world of work, and nudging corporate honchos to lose interest in their employees.
THE TECH ITSELF ISN’T A VILLAIN
ChatGPT is the biggest jewel in the crown of this ongoing AI-driven revolution. The technology has the potential to help employers conduct business with fewer and fewer employees. If it indeed triggers more unemployment around the world and across industries, dissidents will blame their misery squarely on the new tech and its makers, thanks to the mainstream press.
The point here is to understand that ChatGPT is not a villain per se. The software itself can’t sack people! The real culprits behind all firings were, are, and will always be the trigger-happy, flesh-and-bones owners of corporations.
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