Generative AI won't steal your job, just change it, says UN

Unless you're a woman in a clerical position, in which case your role might never come into existence

Generative AI will probably not replace most current workers, with its impact instead confined to automating some tasks for a minority, according to a report released on Monday by the International Labour Organization (ILO), the United Nations agency that develops standards for the world of work.

The report, titled "Generative AI and Jobs: A global analysis of potential effects on job quantity and quality," observes that the launch of OpenAI's ChatGPT has created concerns about job losses, as machines capable of creating text and images, or analyzing data, perform tasks many humans are paid to perform.

But those concerns may be overblown, the report suggests, because the ILO's researchers found most workers are not at high risk of being replaced by AI.

Instead, the report's [PDF] main finding is that "most jobs and industries are only partially exposed to automation and are thus more likely to be complemented rather than substituted by AI."

Anyone who's used generative AI and seen its, shall we say, imaginative output will likely have come to the same conclusion.

The report finds that while tools like GPT-4 can do some of the tasks humans perform in fields such as administration, customer service, data management, and providing information, AI models cannot do all the work required in most roles.

"As a result, the most important impact of the technology is likely to be of augmenting work – automating some tasks within an occupation while leaving time for other duties – as opposed to fully automating occupations," the report states.

But clerical workers will feel more impact.

Generative AI could mean certain clerical jobs never emerge in lower-income countries

"We find that only the broad occupation of clerical work is highly exposed to the technology with 24 percent of clerical tasks considered highly exposed and an additional 58 percent with medium-level exposure," the report states. "For the other occupational groups, the greatest share of highly exposed tasks oscillates between one and four percent, and medium exposed tasks do not exceed 25 percent."

That analysis is bad news for women, as the report finds they are over-represented in clerical work – especially in high and middle-income countries.

"Since clerical jobs have traditionally been an important source of female employment as countries develop economically, one result of Generative AI could be that certain clerical jobs may never emerge in lower-income countries."

Adoption of generative AI in developed countries means workers in those nations are more likely to feel the impact of the technology. The report estimates 5.5 percent of total employment in high-income countries may be at risk of being partly automated, compared to just 0.4 percent in low-income countries.

"We focused on the potential of task automation as of today, without speculating on the numbers of new jobs that might emerge. This approach might have been expected to generate alarming estimates of net job loss – but it did not. Rather, our global estimates point to a future in which work is transformed, but still very much in existence," the researchers said.

They warned, however, that countries need to define policies to ensure that workers' rights are still protected as industries adjust to generative AI.

"Without proper policies in place, there is a risk that only some of the well-positioned countries and market participants will be able to harness the benefits of the transition, while the costs to affected workers could be brutal," the ILO report concluded – as can be expected from an organization that exists to develop and promote policies that make work fair and dignified. ®

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