It can already organize data, write essays and pass exams. And it just got a whole lot smarter.
Generative artificial intelligence (AI) has made significant advances over the past few years, grabbing headlines with the impressive capabilities of large language models (LLMs) like ChatGPT and deep learning models like DALL-E, both created by OpenAI.
A March 2023 research report from OpenAI, OpenResearch and the University of Pennsylvania outlined which jobs could be considered “highly exposed” to automation by an LLM. These jobs were categorized by how much their typical task list overlapped with the AI’s abilities. Among the highest exposure: writers like me.
I spoke with Bryan Seegmiller, a financial economist and professor at Northwestern University. He and his team recently published research on which workers have historically been exposed to technological change. We talked about the impact of AI in the workplace and how we can use upskilling to insulate ourselves from automation.
Let’s dive in.
What Is Generative AI?
First things first: what is generative AI, exactly?
Put simply, generative AI is a system that can generate new content based on a database of existing content. ChatGPT and DALL-E are two current and popular examples, which use human-entered prompts to generate text and photos, respectively. These two models are given a huge quantity of information to make sensible predictions.
The advancement of generative AI has already led to some amazing results, but as it shows its ability to automate parts of our jobs, it’s also prompted some people to worry.
What Jobs Will AI Replace?
“The jobs that are being impacted by technology have started to shift over the last few decades,” Seegmiller explains. “We’ve seen it start to impact more technological duties, specifically routine cognitive tasks and things you can codify and write out step by step.”
The OpenAI report identifies jobs like mathematicians, writers and legal secretaries as a few that are heavily exposed to having their job functions impacted by generative AI. But AI is unique in that it can be used to tackle even more complex tasks than what we’ve seen from earlier types of information technologies.
Other roles that generative AI could impact include:
accountants and auditors
Seegmiller warns that jobs that are heavy on information compiling and summarizing are also at risk. That means entry-level roles and internships may look a lot different in the future, too.
The examples above are shared for illustrative purposes and are not exhaustive. They’re not necessarily jobs that are doomed to be replaced by AI, either. Seegmiller also notes that this type of significant workforce change often takes time.
“In some cases, as the technology moves over the next 10 to 20 years, these roles that are highly exposed may become a lot rarer,” he says.
The OpenAI research report also notes that widespread adoption will be slowed by existing process bottlenecks.
How You Can Use Upskilling to Stay Ahead of AI
Does this mean that all hope is lostfor those whose jobs will be impacted or automated by generative AI? The experts say no. Here are three ways that upskilling can help you insulate yourself from generative AI.
Improve Uniquely Human Skills
AI programs are limited when it comes to “human skills.” While ChatGPT can be useful in some instances, we can’t build a relationship with it. We can’t fully trust it. We can’t rely on it to be creative or to solve unique problems.
“Our research found that interpersonal skills are consistently the least exposed [to automation],” Seegmiller says. “Soft skills aren’t going away any time soon.”
ChatGPT itself agrees. When asked what its shortcomings were, the LLM responded that it has limitations around creativity, empathy and common sense.
Specifically, it noted that humans can improve soft skills, like emotional intelligence, critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
There are many ways you can level up these skills. The first step is to identify what areas you need to improve, which you can do through feedback from your boss or your colleagues or through a self-assessment.
Once you know the areas to improve, you can take courses to give you the foundation you need. Then, it’s a matter of putting those skills into practice and holding yourself accountable for them.
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Successful managers have great interpersonal skills. Among other things, they can motivate their teams, steer projects and develop new, creative strategies. Those are all uniquely human skills. Management also relies on many of the soft skills noted above. And, at least for now, we’re not promoting AI programs to management roles.
Of course, “manager” doesn’t just mean people management; it can also include those who manage projects, campaigns and initiatives. That’s great news for people who don’t have any desire to become people managers.
A group of French researchers found in 2021 that AI can improve most managerial skills, but that “only a few of them may be replaced” altogether. The report went on to highlight the need for managers to improve their technical skills, but this illustrates that human managers are at greatest risk of being replaced by savvier human counterparts, not necessarily by AI itself.
There’s another benefit to pursuing management as AI continues gaining steam: it can help reduce the administrative work that currently bogs down many managers. That could make the roles themselves more desirable. According to a 2023 survey by McKinsey, middle managers reported spending around 18% of their time on administrative tasks. They spent another 31% of their time on individual contributor work.
If some of that time could be freed up by using generative AI, there would be more time to spend on specifically managerial work.
So how do you get into management? Speak to your supervisor about your aspirations to move up and work together to outline what you need to do to make that a reality. That might come in the form of undertaking stretch projects, leading projects, mentoring newer employees or improving managerial skills like strategizing, project planning and leading other employees.
Learn to Work Together
The reality is that generative AI makes a lot of tasks a lot easier, but it isn’t yet foolproof. It still needs significant human oversight to get the most out of it.
For those whose jobs have high exposure to automation, this means learning to work with AI: how to integrate it into workflows, give it effective prompts and fact-check it. That will require people to upskill in areas specific to generative AI and in digital skills more generally.
“There’s a reason why we have all these courses that are proliferating, and that’s because the set of skills you need rapidly evolves as technology evolves,” Seegmiller says, pointing to the increase in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs and jobs in the past few decades.
But he recognizes that not everyone will be able to level up their skills to stave off automation.
“For some people, developing these skills is extremely difficult; there’s the potential for an increase in inequality there,” he says. “Some people who can figure out how to complement generative AI will thrive, but some others may not be able to do so.”
Seegmiller notes that people who are heavily invested in more traditional skills often struggle when new technologies show up and disrupt the way their jobs are done. That suggests resources which help people dynamically respond to new skill demands may help people to adjust.
Though learning to work with AI can be easier said than done, there are courses out there that can help you build a foundation. And institutions around the world are releasing more all the time. The other important piece is practice. Once you learn some foundational skills, do your best to put them to use. Think about learning how to drive. You may start with a book or in a classroom, but to make real progress, you need to get behind the wheel.
Above all, stay curious and keep on learning.
Technological advances have been—and will continue to be—exponential. No matter how exposed to automation we seem to be today, the best course of action we can take is to continuously evolve and update our skills.
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