How to tell if AI threatens your job

Having spent months programming with GitHub Copilot, weeks talking to ChatGPT, and days searching via Bing Chat as an alternative to Google, the best description I’ve heard of AI’s capabilities is “fluent bullshit.” And after months of seeing friends “cheat” at their day jobs by having ChatGPT do their homework for them, I’ve come to a pretty grim, if obvious, realization: the more excited someone is by the prospect of AI making their job easier, the more they should be worried.

I had a lot of fun writing this.

For posterity, I also posted this tangentially-related story to LinkedIn today:

I graduated high school in the wake of the dot-com bust. My guidance counselor urged me not to major in Computer Science.

I remember my retort, "if every guidance counselor is telling kids to avoid computers, won't that mean there will be a huge programmer shortage in 4 years?"

She glared at me. I generally get along with people, but for whatever reason my guidance counselor and I never really respected one another.

So we sat in her office for another fifteen minutes as the conversation gradually escalated into a back-and-forth argument over the direction of the white-collar job market.

As I stood up to leave, I blurted something out without thinking. "Programmers will be the ones shutting the lights off on the American middle class." We both fell silent. I walked away. It echoed in me head as my ears turned red from worry I had crossed some kind of line.

The phrase has haunted me ever since. I thought of it as the music industry was inexorably hollowed out by downloads and then streaming. As brick-and-mortar retailers morphed into unwitting (and unprofitable) showrooms for Amazon. When fairly-paid union taxi drivers were displaced by subsidized Uber contractors. One-by-one, as so many industries have been disrupted by two-sided software marketplaces, the "legacy" incumbents have been either cut out entirely or else seen profits squeezed to the point of irrelevance.

Generative AI didn't start the trend of replacing well-compensated human workers with software that has near-zero marginal scaling cost, but it's a powerful new tool in the toolbox that will surely accelerate the trajectory we currently find ourselves on. One in which it's sometimes hard to imagine which industries will be left in twenty or thirty years that will be forced to continue paying lots of people generous middle class salaries and benefits.

How long are we gonna have insurance agents? Or bankers? Or accountants? Or lawyers? Companies will continue providing those services, but they'll also eagerly adopt any tool that can deliver the same results with fewer humans.

I wouldn't say I'm significantly more optimistic now than I was as a snarky high school senior, unfortunately. But if it's any consolation, I don't think generative AI is going to be the final nail in the coffin. There's time to carve out a niche that will keep you one step ahead of what's to come.