Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

While the artificial intelligence boom driven generative AI could make content creators redundant, AI-driven disruption also poses a threat to the jobs of the coders who make up the backbone of the tech industry.ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images

Dylan Freeman-Grist is a freelance writer based in Toronto covering art, design and technology.

I was once made obsolete because of automation. It was the mid 2010s and e-sports were taking the world by storm. Sports media sites were looking to cash in by expanding their coverage. My job was to watch virtual competitions, churn through the dazzling explosions on screen, and update stats live for our audience.

A hard-working engineering team designed the programs we used to translate the data to our audience. They would often observe and politely ask us questions while we worked. Those chats would eventually reach their natural conclusion as they built a code for automating the data entry, at least partially, informed by our labour. I learned a clear lesson hard and fast: If your job is a series of calculations, inputs and outputs, and someone cracks how to automate it, the writing – so to speak – is on the wall.

It was clear to me then that the engineers who rushed to make my job obsolete were only one clever algorithm away from joining us as we handed in our key cards.

How AI is changing the jobs of call centre workers

They fell in love with an AI chatbot. Now, they’re heartbroken

According to the current artificial intelligence boom – driven mostly by publicity campaigns around “generative AI” (products like OpenAI’s ChatGPT) – the “great redundancy” most immediately awaits writers, artists and content creators. Such sentiments were further fuelled by the release of ChatGPT-4 this month, an upgrade that allows the chatbot to respond to images rather than just words.

Firms all over the world are getting an injection of funding and attention as they devise ways of mashing creative work into predictive algorithms with similar “make that team across the hall redundant” aspirations. Around 1,300 tech leaders, including Steve Wozniak and Elon Musk, recently signed an open letter that in part warns about the potential loss of jobs across industries.

But what isn’t talked about as much is one category of jobs that is also ripe for disruption by AI-automation: the backbone of the tech industry, coding. The binary, tangible, yes-or-no nature of such work is easy to understand for a still-learning machine. The abstract, hard-to-quantify value of art and the content we consume? Not so much. With the advent of AI, ironically, a lot of the new redundancies might just be from the world of tech.

Claiming you’ve “solved” art probably sounds great at a venture capital funding round, but to most it should appear more like someone confidently showing up to a final exam having skipped the years of classes proceeding it. Computers can churn through more calculations in a day than a human could hope to in a lifetime but what makes good art? Why do we enjoy music? What story do we need to tell to motivate a donor to support a noble cause?

Compare the average salaries of a programming team to the average salaries of a marketing team and it’s not hard to see where the accountants (AI or human) will be directing future automation research and development budgets. These generative models have already been replacing jobs like my old gig. Soon similar tools will help patients receive more accurate diagnosis, write lines of code for new applications.

Opinion: Digital literacy will be key in a world transformed by AI

A quick scan of the generative “AI” products that choose to focus instead on the flashier though far more elusive challenge of automating creativity make the challenge gap clear. You can look to the numerous bugs these platforms have – the tendency they have to accidentally say something offensive, or to hallucinate when teeing off from bad information. There is also the more existential issue that won’t be solved by further refinement of an algorithm: These generative platforms still rely on human content as their source material. If we fire all the actual sentience that help these machines impersonate sentience, and our machines can only plagiarize other machines, where does that leave us?

The irony that this AI boom – and rollout smugness from its true believers – is happening during an almost daily deluge of devastating tech layoffs should not be lost on us. While tech analysts have long classified periods of AI development into “springs” and “winters” – brief moments of buzz and long periods of dormancy – I think it’s safe to say that we live in a multipolar world, with different areas experiencing different seasons.

For those in the tech industry who’ve grown used to the boom times of the past two decades, they might find that, when they least expect it, winter will come for them, too.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe