One year on, jury still out on rise of AI

Rayner Sylvester Yeo

Generative artificial intelligence may help narrow the gap between lower-skilled workers and their higher-skilled counterparts, but the country must come up with a strategy to employ the technology. – AFP pic, November 27, 2023.

SINCE the launch of ChatGPT a year ago, are the observed effects of the generative artificial intelligence (AI) overall positive or negative? How can we take advantage of this new technology?

A main concern about generative AI since ChatGPT was launched is the loss of jobs to automation – a hot-button topic in recent years – and the rise of generative AI has added to this anxiety.

The difference is that in the past, it was mainly blue-collar jobs that were lost and many people, especially those of the upper and middle classes, were decidedly unsympathetic and baulked at the thought of helping affected workers.

“Let them learn coding,” they said. “Those jobs are never coming back, they need to accept the reality.”

But now that the technology is threatening to replace white-collar jobs, these people are scared, too. During the Hollywood writers’ strike this year, the use of generative AI in entertainment products was one of the issues brought to fore.

Another concern was that generative AI would exacerbate inequality. In the last few decades, the rise of new technology seems to have widened the gap between high performers and the average people.

This could be seen in various aspects, including the widening pay gap between those with higher education and those without, and the rise in income, power and status of those working in a few specific sectors such as tech over everyone else.

Based on past experience, it seems any new development in technology tends to deliver outsized benefits to a small section of society who are talented and educated enough to take full advantage of it, so people are wondering whether generative AI will further this trend.

However, a few studies done this year seem to have obtained the opposite results. For example, a working paper by Erik Brynjolfsson, Danielle Li and Lindsey R. Raymond titled “Generative AI At Work” found that the least skilled call centre workers were 35% more productive when assisted by AI, while the most skilled workers barely benefited at all.

Another study by Jonathan H. Choi and Daniel Schwarcz titled “AI Assistance In Legal Analysis: An Empirical Study” found that ChatGPT helped low-performance law students close the gap with the best students, and concluded: “The legal profession has a well-known bimodal separation between ‘elite’ and ‘non-elite’ lawyers in pay and career opportunities. By helping bring up the bottom (and even potentially bring down the top), AI tools could be a significant force for equality in the practice of law.”

This similar levelling effect was also found in a working paper by Shakked Noy and Whitney Zhang titled “Experimental Evidence on the Productivity Effects of Generative Artificial Intelligence”, which studied the effect of ChatGPT on writing tasks, and another study by Anil R Doshi and Oliver Hauser on the effect of generative AI on creative tasks titled “Generative Artificial Intelligence Enhances Creativity but Reduces the Diversity of Novel Content”.

Based on those limited studies, it seems this may be a reversal of previous trends and it is possible generative AI could help average people catch up while not assisting top performers much.

An analogue could be drawn with earlier inventions such as calculators, which helped narrow the gap between the best and worst at manual counting.

While it is still too early for a firm conclusion on the overall effect of AI, it is clear this is a field we should watch closely.

As an upper middle-income country on the verge of making the leap to the higher-income club, this could be a powerful tool in our catch-up process.

With the National AI Roadmap 2021-2025 set to expire, the government should begin to consult stakeholders and format a new plan to guide our AI strategy in the latter half of the decade. – November 27, 2023.

* Rayner Sylvester Yeo is a member of Agora Society. He was born in Sabah and is currently residing in Kuala Lumpur. Having grown up in a mixed-ethnic, multi-faith family and spent his working life in public, private and non-profit sectors, he believes diversity is the spice of life.

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