Curious about the potential impact of artificial intelligence on job elimination? The computer programming industry, where AI was born, provides valuable insights. AI is poised to revolutionize computer programming, and perhaps other knowledge-based work, much like automation has transformed jobs in manufacturing, warehousing, retail, and customer service. In these industries, automation replaced numerous roles, either with lower-skilled positions or with more specialized roles, leaving workers at the extremes of the skill spectrum better rewarded.
This trend, known as “skills-biased technological change,” enhances the productivity of skilled workers while automating repetitive tasks, making workers in those roles easier to train and replace. Now, AI is targeting knowledge-based work, potentially profoundly impacting the half of the U.S. workforce employed in such positions. Although these white-collar jobs have been evolving with technological improvements for years, the institutionalization of AI in the workplace could accelerate the elimination of middle-skilled jobs, further contributing to the economic polarization in the country.
The surge in generative AI, exemplified by OpenAI’s ChatGPT, has attracted global attention and has found applications in generating text, images, videos, and even code. Microsoft’s GitHub Copilot, powered by OpenAI technology, was made widely available in June 2022, emphasizing the application of AI in generating and testing code. Unfortunately, the rise of genuinely useful AI for coding comes amidst tech layoffs driven by macroeconomic trends. Software engineers, especially the newer ones, have been significantly affected, while job openings are being filled by experienced professionals.
The introduction of AI that enhances the productivity of experienced programmers may lead companies with hiring freezes to delay resuming recruitment efforts. Startups, coping with the slowdown in venture capital investing, might reconsider their hiring plans. Prashanth Chandrasekar, CEO of Stack Overflow, a repository of programming-related questions and answers, suggests that using AI to boost productivity could be an attractive alternative for investors and companies looking to hire hundreds of engineers.
A recent survey by Stack Overflow indicates that about 70% of programmers are either already using or planning to use AI tools in their work. One-third of these programmers cite increased productivity as the primary reason for adopting such tools.
AI is already enabling companies to achieve greater efficiency and productivity with fewer resources
Numerous technology companies, despite experiencing layoffs, have expressed their commitment to continued growth. Investors have shown increased interest in stocks associated with the AI industry, including Nvidia, Advanced Micro Devices, Apple, and Meta Platforms.
On one hand, these companies will need to continue hiring AI developers, who are currently in high demand and command higher salaries. According to Josh Brenner, CEO of Hired, a tech-job marketplace, AI engineers are among the most sought-after professionals.
However, there is another approach exemplified by Braintrust. As a worker-owned talent network, Braintrust comprises approximately 360,000 freelance developers and serves over 1,500 clients, including Nike, Meta, and Google. CEO Adam Jackson aims to double Braintrust’s revenue in the next two years without increasing the number of employees.
Braintrust is developing its own internal AI system, trained on job postings, developer resumes, and successful matches between companies and freelancers. This system will automate the process of matching companies with developers, utilizing similar technologies found in generative AIs like ChatGPT. Jackson believes that this AI-driven productivity will create more value for their network of engineers, which emerged unexpectedly but largely thanks to AI.
Furthermore, it is expected that other industry- and company-specific AIs will be developed and implemented across various workplaces. When establishing online marketplaces to connect two parties, whether it’s home buyers and sellers or ride-hailing drivers and riders, AI can significantly enhance productivity without necessitating an increase in company headcount, explains Jackson.
Are we witnessing a generation of young developers facing a challenging job market?
Several experienced developers interviewed expressed doubts about AI coding tools completely taking over crucial programming tasks, such as designing solutions for complex problems and comprehending extensive code libraries developed by companies over the course of years or even decades.
However, those who have already adopted such systems believe that certain tasks currently assigned to inexperienced or early-career programmers could be rendered unnecessary. According to Jerome Choo, head of growth at Diffbot, an AI-enabled search startup, off-the-shelf issues can now be addressed relatively easily, leading to a potential shift in hiring preferences towards more senior professionals.
This phenomenon has occurred in the past. Automation’s impact on industries has resulted in job and wage polarization, disrupting the traditional hiring and career progression trajectory. Yossi Sheffi, a professor of engineering at MIT, notes that countries like Germany have implemented a dual education system, combining apprenticeships and university studies within the typical four-year college period, to address this challenge in manufacturing.
As automation, in the form of AI, begins to affect knowledge-based work, similar reconsideration of employment and education for early-career white-collar workers may be necessary. Dr. Sheffi emphasizes the difficulty of hiring junior professionals who lack the experience to step in when the AI systems encounter issues.
Stack Overflow’s survey of developers reveals a discrepancy between how experienced and junior coders utilize AI code-completion tools like GitHub Copilot, ChatGPT, and related startups such as Bito. While experienced programmers primarily utilize these tools for increased productivity, junior programmers predominantly use them for educational purposes, aiming to absorb the knowledge already possessed by AI systems.
Transformation occurs at a gradual pace
While there are initial indications of AI causing disruptions in the job market for certain developers and simultaneously enhancing the value of others, the overall impact of technological advancements on workforce demand tends to occur gradually.
Dr. Sheffi often refers to the historical example of the telephone network when discussing the speed at which automation can displace workers. Despite the invention of the first automatic telephone exchange in 1892, it took until 1930 for America to still have 235,000 telephone exchange operators. Even today, a small number of human operators remain. This demonstrates that the widespread adoption of technology faces various obstacles such as unions, government regulations, and social acceptance, which can significantly slow down the pace of technological change. Similar dynamics are observed with today’s AI, with proposals for a new federal agency to oversee the implementation of new technology platforms, including AI.
Regardless of the rapid development of AI, the adoption of technology ultimately relies on humans, and individuals tend to change slowly, if at all, over the course of their lives. However, the predicament faced by many early-career developers serves as a cautionary tale. If AI disrupts a particular field while workers in that industry are already facing other challenges, the impact of automation on jobs and those employed in them can be swift, despite the gradual nature of technological change.