With the popularity of ChatGPT, many people worry that artificial intelligence will replace human work and lead to widespread unemployment. However, the real problem is not AI but the need to change the socio-economic system.
In early 2023, shortly after the release of ChatGPT, a writer named Jason Colavito posted on social media that his job was being replaced by AI. It could write content and articles for free. However, Colavito was eventually rehired because the content generated by AI did not meet publishing standards. He was asked to edit the AI-generated articles. But he was only paid a fraction of his usual fee.
This is not the first time that technology has reduced income rather than replaced work. The real problem is the culture that devalues human labor.
Discussions about the future of work are happening due to the release of new AI applications. Will robots replace all human jobs? A study predicted that 19% of US professionals would hand over 50% of their work to AI. However, previous automation revolutions suggest it’s more complex than replacing manual labor with technology.
After introducing AI technology, salaries will decrease
In 2019, “Data & Society” researched how automation impacts farm management and grocery stores. Alexandra Mateescu and Madeleine Clare Elish found that new equipment changes the nature of work. Contrary to the widely held view that technology reduces the demand for labor.
For example, self-checkout machines make cashiers busier because now they have to help customers who are unfamiliar with the machines, troubleshoot machine problems, and perform other tasks to ensure that the machines operate correctly in the store.
Most importantly, Mateescu and Elish found that new tasks that help adapt and implement “automation” technology are often underestimated or even ignored.
Writer and filmmaker Astra Taylor called this phenomenon “artificial automation.” In her article “The Automation Puzzle,” she pointed out that although people still work with machines, after the introduction of technology, jobs will decrease, and wages will decrease.
Whether it is customers scanning purchased items at self-checkout or employees rescuing robots stuck in a parking lot, new job content is often low-tech, and related job income will decrease or even be zero.
We are still far from fully liberating labor
We are still far from complete liberation of labor, even as robots work for us. In fact, the opposite may be true. Historian Ruth Cowan wrote in her early works on the history of technology that with the introduction of “labor-saving” devices such as dishwashers and vacuum cleaners, domestic work became more invisible and undervalued. They subtly raised cleaning standards.
Likewise, as automation levels increase, people’s workload may actually become greater. For example, Ian Bogost at the University of Washington predicts that AI technologies like ChatGPT will create more burdens. For instance, warehouse workers have been punished for going to the bathroom due to algorithms setting schedules, and drivers have been squeezed like lemons in the “gig economy” under the support of AI applications.
Meredith Whittaker, the co-founder of AI Now and Signal President at New York University, summarized the good and bad news about future work when commenting on writer Coravito’s free writing status. She predicted that artificial intelligence would not replace humans. However, the cost of artificial labor has been reduced by half. Work is not only the same as before, but also now has to be a caretaker for AI. This is the true face of artificial automation.
Human labor is not a commodity
Technology critics are sometimes referred to as Luddites. Luddites refer to the skilled workers who became unemployed during the Industrial Revolution in 19th-century England due to the replacement of human labor by machines. Nowadays, Luddites refer to people who hold anti-mechanization and anti-automation views.
In fact, Luddites are not against machine. They are protesting against manufacturers who disregard labor under the pretext of new technology. What is important is that the current de-skilling and devaluation of labor is not due to the birth of robots but rather a cultural problem. Society views human workers as replaceable commodities, which is a wrong behavior.
As work is disrupted and livelihoods threatened, most people have pointed their fingers at technological progress. However, the real culprit may be an economic system that prioritizes profit above all else and a social culture that undervalues labor. This is the real “dialogue on robots and works” that we need to have.