Brian Merchant: What it looks like when jobs disappear in the shadow of AI

Brian Merchant, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

What will it look like when AI comes for your job? How will it happen? Will it happen at all? These are the questions on so many minds in the age of OpenAI and Google's Bard, of the suddenly ubiquitous text and image generators such as ChatGPT and Midjourney.

The maddening thing is that, at least at first, it's probably not going to look like much of anything. There will be no cybernetic android that lumbers over to your desk and takes over your work duties, no disembodied robot voice that suddenly assumes command over your department. It might just look like routine layoffs, or a freelancer having more trouble finding work.

A friend of mine, a veteran artist and prolific freelance illustrator, told me it's been a "really weak year," and believes the rise of AI image generation is to blame. He's spoken to art directors at ad agencies, where he's made much of his past income, who told him they've begun using Midjourney internally; the work isn't published publicly, so there are fewer concerns about copyright and no working illustrators who might see the material and shame them.

That is what it will look like to many as managers turn to AI to meet their needs to cut costs: not a fiery robot apocalypse, but a slowly declining rate of work on offer.

More maddening still, few are likely to agree on what constitutes technological replacement, and what does not.

Case in point: Since the text generators burst onto the scene late last year, a number of digital media companies have been experimenting with AI-generated content. CNET quietly started publishing AI-written stories in November, and BuzzFeed and Insider have announced that they're trying out different forms of AI-generated content too.


At the same time, all three companies have also been experimenting with laying off their staff. CNET fired 10% of its newsroom in March, and Insider followed suit in April. BuzzFeed shut down its entire Pulitzer Prize-winning news division, which was home to around 60 journalists, and laid off 15% of employees companywide.

Now, digital media are a particularly punishing business — another former heavyweight, Vice, declared bankruptcy just last week — and one that's no stranger to layoffs at any given time. Yet the timing struck many as alarming, especially at a moment when executives in other industries are explicitly stating their intent to use AI to take over jobs previously done by humans; IBM Chief Executive Arvind Krishna, for instance, estimated AI would replace around 8,000 of the firm's jobs in coming years.

Not two weeks after the News division was shut down, BuzzFeed held its annual Investor Day, at which Chief Executive Jonah Peretti spoke about, among other things, the ways his company was embracing AI. "BuzzFeed has always lived at the intersection of technology and creativity," he said at the event. "And recent developments in artificial intelligence represent an opportunity to take this convergence to the next level."

AI, he said, was making brand-new kinds of content possible and would soon replace the "static" content we've grown accustomed to reading on websites with "new formats that are more gamified, more personalized and more interactive."


swipe to next page

©2023 Los Angeles Times. Visit at Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


blog comments powered by Disqus