By Dan O’Rourke
In recent months, AI (Artificial Intelligence) programmes such as MidJourney and ChatGPT have gained significant attention and many observers have raised serious questions about the future of work in this digital age. No question, that technology has the potential to greatly impact workers, the economy and society as a whole.
Some workers in technology, art and design have talked about how AI could lighten their workload, while others have raised concerns about the potential for job loss.
There’s no denying the technology is being overhyped to a certain degree. In a recent tweet the founder of AI company Open AI, acknowledges this, stating that ChatGPT shouldn’t be used for serious applications.
However, there’s also no denying that AI is used for very serious purposes elsewhere. BlackRock, a multi-trillion dollar investment firm, uses its AI system to make decisions on astronomical amounts of money. Facial recognition systems are being used globally, particularly in China, to oppress dissent. In warfare, AI is being hailed as the “third revolution in weaponry”, and is used particularly by the Israeli army
A new industrial revolution?
For better or worse, many see the rise of artificial intelligence as a new industrial revolution.
Digital automation has the potential improve working conditions, but in a capitalist system, it will be used to increase profits at the expense of workers – lower wages, worse conditions and fewer jobs.
During the industrial revolution – the age of mechanical automation – artisans and craftworkers were forced into factories where they lost their skills and tools and became appendages of the machine. Will today’s technology workers follow a similar path, losing their often well-paid jobs to the machines?
The AI seems to think so. When asked “How will AI affect technology workers, and the wider economy?” the AI chatbot ChatGPT responded:
“AI has the potential to greatly impact both technology workers and the wider economy. In the short term, the development and implementation of AI is likely to create new jobs and opportunities in the technology sector. As AI systems become more advanced and are able to perform a wider range of tasks, however, it is possible that some jobs may be automated and replaced by AI. This could potentially lead to job loss and disruption in the economy, at least in the short term.”
This short answer isn’t quite satisfactory, so for the moment at least, it is up to humans to respond.
Lessons from early workers’ struggles
The industrial revolution disrupted the lives of highly skilled artisans who initially benefited from the new technologies. Small steam engines, bandsaws, and powerlooms allowed them to increase their output. But these new tools soon became their masters.
Automation gradually reduced the start-to-finish role of artisans, until workers were left with a single repetitive task dictated by the speed of the machine.
The horrific working conditions and loss of status radicalised the artisans and craftworkers, leading to the rise of militant socialists and communists, such as the Chartist Movement. The working class began to organise and fight back. The reforms they fought for, many of which we enjoy today, inspired the work of Marx and Engels, and many other revolutionaries who followed them.
Similar to preindustrial production, software development is highly skilled and generalised. There is some minimal division of labour, particularly between design and development, but the modern technology worker bears striking resemblance to the artisan who would take a design and construct the product from start to finish.
Even without AI, driven by capitalists’ requirement to lower labour costs, tech jobs are likely to become increasingly less technical, require fewer years of training, and become more and more divided into separate tasks. Designers will become “prompt generators”, typing in suggestions for the AI to create new designs. Developers will be relegated to bug-checkers for code written by AI.
New technology and capitalism’s boom bust cycle
As with all new advances in technology and production methods, an unprecedented economic boom soon followed the original industrial revolution. Industrialists were able to undercut their craft-based competition and mass produce goods. Products which previously took hours of expensive skilled labour to create were churned out at the speed of a machine gun.
However, as new competitors entered the market with more efficient machines and production processes, they undercut the prices of the incumbents. Factories shut as they were no longer profitable, and the new working class was cast out into destitution. Wars erupted as economies floundered and the new technology was put to use in the massacring of millions.
This boom-bust cycle of recession and war has repeated itself ad-nauseam since the dawn of capitalism, and there is no reason to believe that this new method of digital automation will follow a more benevolent path than its mechanical cousin. If anything, the increased efficiency brought about by AI is likely to have a magnifying effect.
The way forward
If the trajectory of social media is anything to go by, the latest AI tools will devolve into a nightmare as their investors decide the time has come to extract profit. One of the original investors of Open AI, the owners of Dall-E and ChatGPT, is Elon Musk. As his expensive foray into social media starts to bite, he, and others, will want their pound of flesh from their investment.
It will be incumbent upon technology workers, unions and the wider socialist and workers’ movements to collaborate and follow the example of the workers who built the powerful labour movements that came out of the industrial revolution.
This time we must overthrow this system once and for all, and use both mechanical and digital technology for the benefit of all people and the planet. Under capitalism, technology and machinery is not, and has never been, about improving our lives. To do so would go against the brutal logic of profiteerring that this system is built.
These resources must be seized from the hands of the super-rich and big business and placed into democratic public ownership. On this basis, we can use them to build a democratic, socialist and humane society.