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Tinkering With ChatGPT, Workers Wonder: Will This Take My Job?

Artificial intelligence is confronting white-collar professionals more directly than ever. It could make them more productive — or obsolete.

In December, the staff of the American Writers and Artists Institute — a 26-year-old membership organization for copywriters — realized that something big was happening.

The newest edition of ChatGPT, a “large language model” that mines the internet to answer questions and perform tasks on command, had just been released. Its abilities were astonishing — and squarely in the bailiwick of people who generate content, such as advertising copy and blog posts, for a living.

“They’re horrified,” said Rebecca Matter, the institute’s president. Over the holidays, she scrambled to organize a webinar on the pitfalls and potential of the new artificial-intelligence technology. More than 3,000 people signed up, she said, and the overall message was cautionary but reassuring: Writers could use ChatGPT to complete assignments more quickly, and move into higher-level roles in content planning and search-engine optimization.

“I do think it’s going to minimize short-form copy projects,” Ms. Matter said. “But on the flip side of that, I think there will be more opportunities for things like strategy.”

OpenAI’s ChatGPT is the latest advance in a steady march of innovations that have offered the potential to transform many occupations and wipe out others, sometimes in tandem. It is too early to tally the enabled and the endangered, or to gauge the overall impact on labor demand and productivity. But it seems clear that artificial intelligence will impinge on work in different ways than previous waves of technology.

The positive view of tools like ChatGPT is that they could be complements to human labor, rather than replacements. Not all workers are sanguine, however, about the prospective impact.

Katie Brown is a grant writer in the Chicago suburbs for a small nonprofit group focused on addressing domestic violence. She was shocked to learn in early February that a professional association for grant writers was promoting the use of artificial-intelligence software that would automatically complete parts of an application, requiring the human simply to polish it before submitting.

“For me, it’s common sense: Which do you think a small nonprofit will pick?” Ms. Brown said. “A full-time-salary-plus-benefits person, or someone equipped with A.I. that you don’t have to pay benefits for?”

Artificial intelligence and machine learning have been operating in the background of many businesses for years, helping to evaluate large numbers of possible decisions and better align supply with demand, for example. And plenty of technological advancements over centuries have decreased the need for certain workers — although each time, the jobs created have more than offset the number lost.

“ChatGPT is the one that made it more visible,” said Michael Chui, a partner at the McKinsey Global Institute who studies automation’s effects. “So I think it did start to raise questions about where timelines might start to be accelerated.”

For now, Guillermo Rubio has found that his job as a copywriter has changed markedly since he started using ChatGPT to generate ideas for blog posts, write first drafts of newsletters, create hundreds of slight variations on stock advertising copy and summon research on a subject about which he might write a white paper.

Since he still charges his clients the same rates, the tool has simply allowed him to work less. If the going rate for copy goes down, though — which it might, as the technology improves — he’s confident he’ll be able to move into consulting on content strategy, along with production.

“I think people are more reluctant and fearful, with good reason,” Mr. Rubio, who is in Orange County, Calif., said. “You could look at it in a negative light, or you can embrace it. I think the biggest takeaway is you have to be adaptable. You have to be open to embracing it.”

The advent of ChatGPT three months ago, however, has prompted a flurry of studies predicated on the idea that this isn’t your average robot.

Those productivity gains are unlike almost any observed since the widespread adoption of the personal computer.

“It does seem to be doing something fundamentally different,” said David Autor, another M.I.T. economist, who advises Ms. Zhang and Mr. Noy. “Before, computers were powerful, but they simply and robotically did what people programmed them to do.” Generative artificial intelligence, on the other hand, is “adaptive, it learns and is capable of flexible problem solving.”

That’s very apparent to Peter Dolkens, a software developer for a company that primarily makes online tools for the sports industry. He has been integrating ChatGPT into his work for tasks like summarizing chunks of code to aid colleagues who may pick up the project after him, and proposing solutions to problems that have him stumped. If the answer isn’t perfect, he’ll ask ChatGPT to refine it, or try something different.

“It’s the equivalent of a very well-read intern,” Mr. Dolkens, who is in London, said. “They might not have the experience to know how to apply it, but they know all the words, they’ve read all the books and they’re able to get part of the way there.”

There’s another takeaway from the initial research: ChatGPT and Copilot elevated the least experienced workers the most. If true, more generally, that could mitigate the inequality-widening effects of artificial intelligence.

On the other hand, as each worker becomes more productive, fewer workers are required to complete a set of tasks. Whether that results in fewer jobs in particular industries depends on the demand for the service provided, and the jobs that might be created in helping to manage and direct the A.I. “Prompt engineering,” for example, is already a skill that those who play around with ChatGPT long enough can add to their résumés.

Since demand for software code seems insatiable, and developers’ salaries are extremely high, increasing productivity seems unlikely to foreclose opportunities for people to enter the field.

That won’t be the same for every profession, however, and Dominic Russo is pretty sure it won’t be true for his: writing appeals to pharmacy benefit managers and insurance companies when they reject prescriptions for expensive drugs. He has been doing the job for about seven years, and has built expertise with only on-the-job training, after studying journalism in college.

After ChatGPT came out, he asked it to write an appeal on behalf of someone with psoriasis who wanted the expensive drug Otezla. The result was good enough to require only a few edits before submitting it.

“If you knew what to prompt the A.I. with, anyone could do the work,” Mr. Russo said. “That’s what’s really scares me. Why would a pharmacy pay me $70,000 a year, when they can license the technology and pay people $12 an hour to run prompts into it?”

Category: Technology

Source: NYTimes Technology

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