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Is artificial intelligence coming for your job? This professor has some ideas

Technological advancements can make workers’ jobs easier and boost productivity. But, according to recent research from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Illinois, some occupations have been harder-hit by technological progress over time than others, with some replaced entirely by automation and others devalued over time.

And while highly paid and skilled white-collar workers have historically been insulated from the negative effects of changing technology, the professor leading the research says artificial intelligence is starting to hit some of those occupations.

Kellogg assistant professor of finance Bryan Seegmiller, finance professor Dimitris Papanikolaou and their colleagues measured workers’ exposure to new technologies by comparing the key tasks associated with various occupations against new patent descriptions.

Prof. Seegmiller pointed to concerns around OpenAI’s ChatGPT chatbot, which generates text based on simple reader prompts. BuzzFeed announced in late January that it will use the technology to create quizzes and other interactive content, and Amazon employees who tested it found it capable of handling customer support questions and making training documents.

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The Kellogg professors’ research doesn’t cover ChatGPT directly, but Prof. Seegmiller said he expects the program will change up the skills mix for many occupations, such as computer programming and journalism, by handing repetitive or rote tasks to the chatbot. For example, ChatGPT can suggest code snippets for certain computer programming problems, which could free up computer programmers to tackle big-picture challenges.

“[ChatGPT] can’t come up with creative solutions to problems that are brand-new, [or] where there’s not a lot of data available,” he said. That’s where workers can continue to stand out.

The research noted that the types of workers affected by automation have changed over time. From 1850 to 1970, manual and physical occupations such as machine operators, electricians, mechanics and glass-blowers were hardest-hit by emerging technologies. But as the 1980s ushered in an information technology revolution and e-commerce began to boom in the late 1990s and early 2000s, technology has had the largest impact on professions with what Prof. Seegmiller calls “routine cognitive tasks,” such as order clerks, technicians and programmers.

Among these groups, older workers and those who were the highest-paid in their professions saw the biggest hits to their incomes, Prof. Seegmiller said, likely due to the time they spent honing a specific trade or skill that then became vulnerable to technological shifts. Workers at the lower end of the income scale also faced more significant effects, which he attributed to the complete displacement of those jobs.

He said adaptability and an openness to learning new skills and ways of doing things will be crucial for workers. He also noted that professions that have historically been well protected from the winds of technological change have been ones that require strong interpersonal or leadership skills, such as teachers, counsellors and psychologists.

“I suspect going forward that people whose occupations might be exposed otherwise, if you build up an ability to work with others, think creatively and do the things that technology can’t do, you’re going to be a harder person to replace,” he said. “People skills are absolutely crucial.”

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