Merchant: What It’s Like When AI Takes Your Job

Merchant: What It’s Like When AI Takes Your Job

How will it be when AI comes to your work? How is this going to happen? Will it happen? These are the questions many minds have in the age of OpenAI and Google’s Bard, the suddenly ubiquitous text and image generators like ChatGPT and Midjourney.

The maddening thing is that, at least at first, it probably won’t seem like much. There will be no cybernetic androids that crawl up to your desk and take over your work duties, no disembodied robot voices that suddenly take charge of 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 was a “very poor year” and believes the rise of AI imaging is to blame. He spoke to art directors at advertising agencies, where he earned much of his former income, who told him they had started using Midjourney internally; the work is not publicly published, so there are fewer copyright concerns and no illustrators who can see the material and embarrass them.

What that’s what it will look like to many when managers turn to AI to meet their cost-cutting needs: not a fiery robotic apocalypse, but a slowly declining job supply rate.

Even more maddening, few people are likely to agree on what constitutes technological substitution and what does not.

Case in point: Since 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 announced that they are also experimenting with different forms of AI-generated content.

At the same time, the three companies are also experimenting with laying off their employees. CNET laid off 10% of its newsroom in Marchand Insider followed suit in April. BuzzFeed to switch off the entire Pulitzer Prize-winning news division, which housed about 60 journalists and laid off 15% of employees across the company.

Now digital media is a particularly punishing business – another former heavyweight, Vice, declared bankruptcy last week – and one that is no stranger to layoffs at any time. However, the timing struck many as alarming, especially at a time when executives in other industries are explicitly declaring their intention to use AI to take over jobs previously done by humans; IBM CEO Arvind Krishnafor example, it is estimated that AI will replace around 8,000 company jobs in the coming years.

Less than two weeks after the news division closed, BuzzFeed held its annual Investor Day, where Chief Executive Jonah Peretti spoke about, among other things, how 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 enabling new types of content and would soon replace the “static” content we’ve grown accustomed to reading on websites with “new formats that are more gamified, personalized and interactive.”

BuzzFeed, he continued, is using generative AI to “set the blueprint for AI-driven revenue growth across the enterprise. … And with developments in creators and AI, we see the opportunity to build a content creation model that makes our creative team more efficient and sustainably scales our output without increasing fixed costs.”

When I shared the observation that BuzzFeed seemed to be going all-in on AI after firing its news team on Twitter, the reaction was strong.

“Inexorably Dark,” MSNBC Host Chris Hayes commented. “None of this has to happen”, writer Molly Jong-Fast tweeted. “Writing doesn’t need to be automated.”

Displeased for another reason, Peretti sent me a direct message accusing me of “completely misrepresenting” what he said. But what started out as a hostile exchange — “utterly irresponsible,” he called my comment on his rant — soon turned into something more productive, as Peretti explained his thoughts on how BuzzFeed would use AI. Our DM conversation offered a window into an executive’s thinking in a field that generative AI can affect.

“In the future, AI will replace static content because content will become more personalized and dynamic,” Peretti said. “For example, you’ll be able to ‘chat to an article’ to get related information or background on a story you may have previously missed. This has nothing to do with replacing writers or AI writing articles.”

Peretti said he was not automating the production of reports, nor replacing AI writers. “I was talking about the industry as a whole when I described ‘static content’ being replaced,” he said, “and my prediction is that it will be replaced by formats like BuzzFeed AI quizzes, i.e. content created by humans with added interactivity with AI.”

I pointed out that firing the people whose job it was to write articles and then pointing to the company’s adoption of AI is, however, defending the investors who said the new technology will make a difference. On Investor Day, Peretti said that using AI “sustainably expands our production without increasing fixed costs,” after all.

“What happened with News and AI is unrelated,” he said, “I closed BuzzFeed News because I was losing millions of dollars and I still supported it for years and years despite the losses.”

He continued, “Some investors might misunderstand what we’re doing and think it’s ‘automated production,’ as you put it. I never said that and I think it’s a huge misunderstanding of how AI will be used in media. Think of AI as a new medium, not a job replacement. We will not replace the BFN output; we’ll be doing totally different types of content. We are going to need creative people to create these new formats.”

And here is the crux of the matter. I believe Peretti when he says he’s not looking at this as a way to replace workers – even though I’m absolutely convinced he’s trying to replace his value. But when automation develops in a historical context, it is rarely an individual case. It’s not like there’s a science news writer one day and a bot trained to reproduce your output that will be deployed the next day. In the world of newsgathering, anyway – workers such as voice actors and illustrators have found their art sucked in and spat out by generative AI trained on their job, although the legality of such practices is still heavily questioned and humans are still needed to edit the final output.

Automation is patchy and messy, and is much more likely to continue in the way we’re seeing at BuzzFeed – previously there was a large expensive team of humans doing hard, labor-intensive work, and now they’re gone and there’s an entirely different content product built by a combination of new technology and input from a more precarious worker. (In his Investor Day speech, Peretti also spoke about the growing importance of partnerships with independent content creators. “The move will allow BuzzFeed to do more with fewer employees, while also tapping into new Internet trends,” as Axios reported.)

When I asked if he would try to maintain the same production without the writing, he didn’t respond, and that certainly seems to be the plan.

The way he sees it, I think, is that the News just wasn’t viable anymore – it never made money and is unlikely to do so in the future. Closing that department was a decision; embracing AI for a different part of their business was another.

But it’s hard to say whether Peretti would be comfortable scrapping News if there wasn’t vibrant technology to create new types of content to intrigue investors. The news may not have been profitable in the strict sense, but it lent credibility and prestige to the entire BuzzFeed operation and generated indirect value from which the rest of the company benefited. If generative AI hadn’t exploded when it did, would BuzzFeed have been able to dump News? Maybe not!

This is speculative and Peretti insists otherwise. But AI is above all an ambiguity generator. It allows those in power to justify making all kinds of calls, in the name of embracing the future, improving efficiency, and so on. And in this very young AI-infested moment of ours, we can’t be sure how many of those calls will be disrupted.

There are, however, many worrying signs – studio execs refused to agree not to use AI that would displace writersat a critical point in the ongoing writers’ strike, for example – and ample anecdote in the form of all those Twitter topics about workers being laid off in favor of ChatGPT. But it’s still hard to know how, when and if AI will have a big impact on the job board. Peretti says he sympathizes with that.

“So many journalists are losing their jobs and it’s a real crisis,” Peretti said. “People should be concerned. And history has valuable lessons, to be sure. The irony is that if our AI entertainment efforts had started earlier and performed better, I might have had enough surplus profit to continue underwriting news losses, as I did years before.”

In the end, we’re still getting more AI and less humans – even if the AI ​​isn’t exactly doing the humans’ jobs. AI will be used by executives and managers in the following ways, I think: to help increase investment in future products that require less labor costs to make, to buffer layoffs or attrition in human departments, and to hire more part-time or project-based employees.

There is no job apocalypse coming; there are just a bunch of managers making the calls they think will best benefit their bottom line and serve their advice. Just as they should – AI or not.

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