A few days ago, I had one of those middle-of-the-night thoughts: How long will it be before one or more of my clients decide they’d rather have subpar AI-generated text for free rather than pay for what I produce? The thought kept me up for about a half hour, then I slept.
Roughly 24 hours later, a client contacted me to let me know the boss was increasingly interested in AI. This was why they hadn’t had any new work for me in a while, and why they probably wouldn’t in the foreseeable future. An algorithm took my job.
For the time being I have sufficient work elsewhere; I’m disappointed to lose the gig, but I’ll be fine. Still, the writing is on the wall. And that writing has been cribbed from the internet and regurgitated by a soulless machine.
Upwork’s cash grab
Earlier this month, Upwork, a website for freelancers, announced they were changing their rate structure. Instead of charging a 20% fee on contracts, then 10% after freelancers hit a certain earnings threshold, and finally 5%, they were adopting a straight 10% fee on all contracts. Upwork said they were doing this in the name of “simplicity.” No one is buying it. This is a blatant cash grab by a company that knows its users have few good alternatives.
The announcement received an angry pushback from us freelancers who have been on the site for years and earned the reduced 5% fee. When this takes effect, we’ll get a pay cut. That’s despite the fact that we’ve brought in substantial value to the site, both in terms of the income earned and the legitimacy we’ve given by being good at what we do.
The obvious reason for this change is greed. We long-term freelancers are more likely to have higher-paying contracts. Taking 10% instead of 5% is going to be a big boost for Upwork. But I suspect more is at play here.
I’d bet good money (say 5% of my income) that with AI tools proliferating, many of the smaller jobs and contracts that newer freelancers were being hired for are disappearing. Why pay $30 to a freelancer to write copy for your website’s homepage when a bot can generate it for free? As those gigs dried up for freelancers, so did Upwork’s finances. Does that make stealing from us long-termers fair? No. But it is good business. Which is to say, it’s how modern business is done.
Hide your kids, hide your wife
I really don’t want to be the guy who writes about AI. I actually find the subject boring. Hell, what we’re calling “AI” is not even artificial intelligence, not in the way we’ve historically meant it. These bots are just advanced search engines crossed with predictive text algorithms. They’re not thinking. They’re not even mimicking, really. They’re regurgitating meh-quality forgeries. We’re a long way away from Lieutenant Commander Data.
In February, the renowned Science Fiction journal Clarkesworld Magazine had to pause accepting submissions because they were being swarmed by AI-generated stories. They’ve reopened for submissions, but they explicitly state they “will not consider any submissions written, developed, or assisted” by AI tools. Which is great, for now, but as AI gets better, it’ll be harder to detect. The Amazon Kindle store is currently filling up with AI-written novels. Fat chance Yahweh’s Children will stand out in that
It’s not just writing. My Instagram feed is now filled with AI-generated “photos.” The many art accounts I follow that state emphatically they only feature real photos have now gone all-in on AI. Most such photos are clearly AI-generated (look to the hands), but not all of them. Just this week, a fake image of the Pope in a white puffy coat went viral, mostly because many people didn’t realize it was AI-generated.
All of that is to say, the creative fields are looking dire. Writing, photography, videos, music, whatever, if it’s a career that involves any type of creative instinct, it’s vulnerable. “But what about the human element?” You ask, like a naïve little puppy. “People don’t want art made by a machine.” ChrisEvansLaughing.gif
That doesn’t mean art is going to die (I have no interest in debating whether AI-generated content is art). The creation of art isn’t going to end. Making a living off of it is, though, and that was already pretty damn impossible.
Will AI replace your job?
Even if you’re not an artist, you should be concerned. As I’ve written previously, we need a universal living wage (or basic income). We need it because art should be subsidized. But, also because the machines are coming for your job. Whatever your job is.
Every time a new advance in AI (or automation in general) comes out, I see articles with titles like, “Will AI replace workers?” That’s the wrong question.
AI isn’t here to replace you (not yet). It’s here to make the work you do less valuable. It’s here to reduce the number of people and/or hours needed to do your job, thereby ensuring stock valuations rise as pay drops. It doesn’t matter what you do. If you’re a teacher, trucker driver, retail worker, or nurse, AI is entering your field. (I’m sure someone reading this is smugly thinking, “Not my field.” Yes, your field.)
The AI cheerleaders promise, “AI isn’t here to replace you, it’s here to make your job easier.” Which is half true. AI can make many menial tasks easier, or just do them flat out. Thus, workers are freed to focus on the tasks that require more complex human thought or, you know, humanity. Which is going to be nice, for a generation or two, tops.
History tells us customers are fine losing the human element if something is cheaper. And, eventually, employers are going to say, “Why are we paying you the same amount for doing less work?” They’ll either cut your pay or fire your coworker and give their work to you do for no extra compensation.
Ironically, tech workers may be hurt even sooner than artists. AI will be able to code better than our best coders (maybe it already can). Machines make fewer silly mistakes than humans; not no mistakes, just not as many. And with each successive generation of AI, those mistakes diminish. AI will have the capacity to code (with annotation) infinitely faster than a person. The people who spent years learning to code are going to have to learn a new new skill.
Working harder, not smarter
These are safe predictions to make because this has already been happening for decades. Computers were supposed to give us more free time. But workers are still putting in 40-hour weeks and being pressed to work on weekends or skip vacation time.* And the people who entered the so-called “gig economy” are working even harder with fewer protections.
Freelancers and gig-employees may be the most vulnerable at the moment. Not that I expect you to feel sorry for me. I’m free to work at my own pace and to take or pass on jobs as a like. I also work from home. It’s a pretty good situation, currently.
On the flip side, I have far less protections. I don’t have long-term contracts with my clients. Plus, I only get paid for the work I produce, which means things like sick pay and vacation time don’t exist. Living in Spain, I at least get healthcare. Many US-based freelancers can’t say that.
If/when our clients decide, “An AI bot is sufficient for my purposes,” we’re out on our collective arse. When AI devalues the work you do, clients pay less.
The inherent vice
Here’s where the hardcore capitalists chime in to say, “That’s the free market at work. If you aren’t good enough at your job to best a computer, you should be out of a job!” Which, fine. That is the system we live in, and there’s really no arguing with it. If I’m losing my job to AI/automation, I just need to learn a new skill. Maybe coding? Oh, wait.
The problem is that hardcore capitalists aren’t capitalists at all. It will surprise no one who has been paying attention for the past four decades that the arrival of President Ronnie Reagan (may the piss on his grave never stop flowing) coincided with a major evolution of capitalist philosophy.
Likely, if you grew up in the American education system, you believe capitalism means competition. You believe that capitalism is this fair system where, through free trade and competition, the best products, services, and businesses rise to the top. Sounds lovely. It’s bullshit.
In the 1980s, conservative thought leaders, led by Robert Bork and the Chicago School, decided competition was for suckers. Why shouldn’t a major corporation be able to crush smaller upstarts and set up “moats” to ensure no other entities could enter their realm? Why should the government care about upholding antitrust legislation? And why should the people with all the money be made to share with other people?**
In short, modern capitalism says that all that matters is the creation of more money. It doesn’t matter who has that money, so long as there is more of it, somewhere. Which is how we’ve ended up with an ever-widening wealth gap and the undying Ponzi scheme known as Trickle-Down Economics.
Major corporations don’t care about their employees. Just as these corporations have set up manufacturing in countries with lax labor laws, they will obviously embrace AI. Anything to boost profits and ensure those profits remains in their pockets and don’t flow down to their employees.
The future of labor
If you’re a good little capitalist, I’m sure you’re thinking exactly what you’ve been trained to think: “You’re overreacting. People have been scaremongering about new technology since the invention of the cotton gin. AI is just another tool to use.” The argument is that technological advances have always transformed industries, but workers have either adapted or found new occupations. That was then, though; this is now.
Fewer workers belong to unions than anytime since before World War II. Millions of Americans are working two jobs and still not able to afford essentials. And wealth inequality is getting out of control while wages remain largely stagnant.
Unions are pretty unpopular these days. Which is tragic, because workers’ rights and protections didn’t just appear out of the ether or out of the goodness of bosses’ hearts. Unions did that. Unions have their flaws, and there are definitely some corrupt ones (*cough*police unions*cough*), but if the goal is workers’ rights and the choice is between unions and the benevolence of bosses, I’m throwing in with unions every time.
Workers who did weather the massive technological advances of the past did so in part because of contractual protections. And plenty of workers of the past did not weather those advances. Just look at employment in motor vehicle manufacturing compared to car ownership in America. More cars, less workers. (Not coincidentally, union membership in Michigan is a third of what it was five decades ago.)
Those who had protections had them because of labor organizers and *gasp* unions. Look at Amazon’s piss warehouses or Starbucks efforts to stomp out unions and tell me the rights of workers are ever a priority for major corporations. Such rights were never freely given. They certainly won’t be now in an age when unions are weaker than ever and automation (in all its forms) is giving human workers less leverage.
And so, again, I return to my cause: workers uniting for a universal living wage. I know there is no way to separate this issue from the Left/Right political divide in the US, but this really isn’t political. I am just as worried about farmers and factor workers losing their jobs to automation as I am creatives and coders losing their jobs to AI. This isn’t even an American issue. All countries must confront this reality.
Whatever you do, whatever industry you work in, no amount of talent or American Work Ethic® is going to protect your job from what’s coming. You may be safe for now, but your kids certainly won’t be. The writing is on the wall, and it’s soulless.
*This problem is fairly specific to the US. In places like the EU where workers generally have more rights, “holidays” are sacrosanct. That doesn’t mean those workers are living in paradise.
**The rise of Bork’s anti-antitrust philosophy and the degradation of capitalist ideals is covered in far greater (and better) detail in Chokepoint Capitalism by Rebecca Giblin and Cory Doctorow. It’s a must-read book, particularly because the authors devote 50% of the pages to advocating for solutions to the problems it diagnoses.