Ajit Balakrishnan decodes the post-ChatGPT angst.
Here are some samples of media headlines across the world and across all media types: 'ChatGPT: The 10 Jobs Most at Risk of Being Replaced by AI'; 'Which jobs are in danger due to ChatGPT?'; and 'ChatGPT could make these jobs obsolete'.
Such headlines are then followed with details about the type of jobs that are threatened, which level of jobs are threatened, which industries are threatened, and so on.
I must confess that all this makes me feel that I have been transported back in time to the world of Manchester in the 1840s, when the textile-spinning and -weaving machine made its appearance. I listen anxiously if I can hear words like... 'labour is not only the fundamental source of all wealth, next to nature, which supplies it with the material that it converts into wealth, it is, in fact, the prime basic condition for all human existence'.
Those, as you may know, dear reader, were the words of Friedrich Engels, a wealthy German youngster whose father had sent him to Manchester to run one of the family's weaving mills. And of course, as you will know, Engels quickly gave up on that and partnered with an acquaintance, Karl Marx, to create the Marxist view of the world.
What are some of the theories being propounded on what types of jobs and how many will be destroyed?
In the United States and Europe, approximately two-thirds of current jobs are exposed to some degree of AI automation, and up to a quarter of all work could be done by AI completely, say economists from Goldman Sachs.
The Business Insider Web site quotes the McKinsey Institute as saying that tech jobs such as those of software developers, web developers, computer programmers, coders, and data scientists are the most likely to be most affected.
Next in line for replacement, they say, are content-creation jobs such as journalism, advertising copywriting, and legal assistants.
When you look at all these angst-ridden forecasts, you can see one thing that they all agree on: ChatGPT and its cousins' ability to generate human-like text is the core strength that worries people.
In other words, what a wide range of observers from classical believers in capitalism like management consultants and investment banks are saying is more or less the words that Engels and his pal Marx said in the mid-1840s.
In the dream that I was in, listening to Engels say those words, I pictured myself whispering to him, 'But Mr Engels, with all due respect to you, can you not see that cloth is being woven so cheaply that even the poorest peasants in India can now afford to wear a cotton dhoti and kurta and not go semi-naked as he and his family have been doing for generations?'
Would he have said, 'But, Mr Balakrishnan, what matters most to me is that hand weavers and spinners are becoming unemployed... that matters more than Indian peasants being able to afford good cotton clothing.'
Since I have to wait a while for the technology breakthrough which would have allowed me to go back in time and be in the Manchester of the 1840s, let me at least address the ChatGPT anxiety that is running amok among our thinkers today, using a few examples from the past.
Let's take stenography: When I started working in 1970s Bombay, a fourth of all employees in prominent service industries of that time -- ad agencies, publishing companies, and banks -- were stenographers, both male and female. Then the personal computer and Microsoft Word, and its equivalents appeared.
Within a period of less than six years, stenographers faded out. The PC and Word Processing software would help you write not only office letters but even ad copy and news articles and other such documents. And we bid bye-bye to stenographers as a human species.
Next was the turn of accountants/bookkeepers: In the late 1970s such folk made up a tenth of the people in banks and businesses. Then came accounting software, which eliminated more than half of them. A million bank workers went on strike in 1980, protesting that 'computers are a capitalist evil that would rob people of their jobs'.
But contrary to all of the above, notice how our constant and dearest companion (no, not your wife/husband, nor your cat/dog), the mobile phone, has worked its way through the human system. It's made every one of us a photographer (no one is mourning the end of cameras and photographers), also made every one of us a financial whiz (online payments, transfers...).
Then, familiar reassuring presences such as a bank branch (and managers and clerks in them) are disappearing from the Indian landscape. And who needs record/cassette players and TV sets? All we do is pull out our little mobile phone and tap a few things there to watch the movie we want or hear the song which suits our mood of that minute.
And I haven't noticed any angst-ridden editorials mourning the end of photographers or bankers and others affected by the rise of our little pal, our mobile phone.
Is it possible that AI/ChatGPT will do something similar for us that the mobile phone has? Make each one of us a creative composer of words? And be the tool that moves the world to a place where being creative with words will become as easy for each one of us just as the mobile phone did for us with pictures and spoken words and music?
Ajit Balakrishnan (email@example.com), founder and CEO, Rediff.com, is an Internet entrepreneur.