Could the Rapid Progression of AI Make Our Jobs Expendable?

January 31, 2023 By Andrew Ramspacher, fpa5up@virginia.edu Andrew Ramspacher, fpa5up@virginia.edu

Professor Anton Korinek’s résumé should give him a high sense of job security. He holds appointments in both the University of Virginia’s Department of Economics and the Darden School of Business. He’s also a Rubenstein Fellow at the Brookings Institution and the economics of artificial intelligence lead at Oxford’s Centre for the Governance of AI.

Korinek has a master’s degree from the University of Vienna in Austria and a doctoral degree from Columbia University. His work has been featured in such esteemed publications as The Economist, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

So why is Korinek, 44, already preparing for a time when he becomes redundant in the workplace?

It’s simple: He has a firm sense of the potential realities of AI.

Advancement in AI capabilities drew headlines last week when it was reported that the writing of ChatGPT, a chatbot launched in November, passed a final exam at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.

To Korinek, it was another step in the rapid progress of AI, something he’s been tracking for decades.

“These systems are advancing so fast,” he said. “What we have seen over the last decade is the size of these systems is doubling every six months. If something is doubling every six months, that means it grows by a factor of four every year and by a factor of 1,000 every five years.

“It’s the speed of progress that really leads me to believe that we’re going to see sky-rocketing capabilities among AI systems. And if you find ChatGPT impressive, wait for the next one to come out in the first half of 2023. And then wait for the version after that in the second half of 2023, and so on.”

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Portrait of Anton Korinek outside on the Lawn
Anton Korinek has been tracking the progress of artificial intelligence for decades. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

In a recent entry to Darden’s “Ideas to Action” blog, Korinek said he is “taking time to reflect on life after cognitive automation has made me redundant as an economist.”

The bold statement reflects the seriousness with which Korinek takes AI development. UVA Today caught up with Korinek to learn more.

Q. How certain are you that advancements to AI could lead to the elimination of your job? When could that happen?

A. Do I view it as an absolutely certainty? Probably not. But honestly, I do view it as a distinct possibility that this may happen, even within the current decade. I would not have said that if we had spoken a year ago, but the progress over the past 12 months has just been so rapid.

Q. What has caused this rapid progression?

A. A few years ago, everybody was convinced that physical jobs would be automated first and cognitive jobs would be much, much slower to be automated. But in some ways, the recent developments with these language models – like ChatGPT – have really turned that take on its head. And it seems now that cognitive automation is proceeding much faster than physical automation.

I would say that there aren’t necessarily any cognitive tasks that we can perform that couldn’t also be performed by sufficiently advanced computers. The question is ... would you be willing to have, for example, an AI lawmaker, an AI judge?

Q. Do you think someday it could get to that point? What are the limits to this when it comes to computers replacing specific jobs?

A. Let me distinguish between whether AI systems can display the capability and whether it’s desirable for us to actually let AI perform those tasks. I do believe they can acquire the capabilities to, for example, evaluate legal texts, to negotiate law, to evaluate complex legal situations like what judges do. I don’t think our society, at least in the near term, is going to be willing to completely hand those tasks over to an AI system. But I believe what we will see is AI systems will provide more and more assistance in those tasks.

And if you have an assistant that becomes really good at what it’s doing, you start to trust them. When you have automated systems that, for example, are really good at writing laws, there’s going to be a tendency to take more and more of what they’re giving us.

Q. How can AI impact journalism?

A. Right now, a system could write an article based off our conversation, but you still have to do quite a bit of editing. In a year or two, the editing is going to be less. In three or four years, even less so. And at some point, the article the system produces is going to be so good that you’re going to say, “Well, why should I spend my time editing this?”

At this point, the system is by, no means, perfect. It would still take you and me to go over that text afterward and say, “Here, it did really well and here it screwed up and hallucinated,” but those moments of hallucination are getting fewer and fewer. These systems are getting better.

Another thing that ChatGPT can do quite well is brainstorm three or four titles for an article based on an interview. It comes up with a few ideas and then you can pick and choose and maybe combine. It’s really already quite capable already of doing that.

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Q. If cognitive workers are increasingly at risk of being of automated, what can they do to prepare for a potential change?

A. In the near term – the next couple of years – I would advise people to familiarize themselves with these systems, because they can use them to their advantage and become more efficient in the work that they are doing. Those that use these systems are going to have a leg up on those who don’t.

In the longer term, we have to remind ourselves that work is a means to an end. In the past, work has always been valued by society because it was the basis of our survival. Before the Industrial Revolution, we worked to create our daily bread. At the start of the Industrial Revolution, some of us started to work in industry, and then in services.  

But work is not an end in itself. If advanced machines can perform our work better, then it would be a waste of our time to continue to work. If everything is being automated, those of us who still like to write articles or research papers because they enjoy it, they can still do that. No one’s going to prevent them from enjoying it.

Q. But could there still be a way for those folks to make money doing that?

A. This is indeed the main concern. If machines can automate only part of what we are doing, then the remaining parts become more valuable, and our incomes go up – as has always been the case since the Industrial Revolution.

But if things change and machines can automate literally everything, then the value of human labor would be greatly diminished. Why would we continue to pay white-collar workers large salaries if machines can do an equal or better job at a fraction of the cost?

But there is no need to be filled with dread quite yet. If machines really become capable of doing everything that we can do, then economic growth would also take off. We would experience an era of abundance like humanity has never seen before. Even if we are not working, we could all be far better off than today if we manage to share just a small sliver of the windfall that will be delivered – for example, if we manage to distribute a fraction of ownership in the most advanced AI systems across society or to provide a universal income to everyone.

Korinek has recently explored these policy options in a research report entitled “Preparing for the (Non-Existent?) Future of Work” that was published by Brookings.

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Andrew Ramspacher

University News Associate University Communications