As everyone in the writing world knows, ChatGPT has come, and the end is nigh. Pretty soon the written word will be owned by machines, and all the people who used to make their living with words (like yours truly) will be thrown onto the proverbial streets.
At least that’s the way some of the articles I’ve read recently have presented it. In case you aren’t familiar with it, ChatGPT is an AI program that will basically write anything you ask it to based on a few text prompts. Tell it to “write a story about a rabbit in search of the perfect cucumber” or “craft me an email that will help me break up with somebody without hurting their feelings too bad” or whatever else, and it’ll put the entire thing together for you. It’s basically magic, and it’s keeping teachers everywhere up at night because it’s passed business and law school exams already. And every time a new technology appears, the fear that it will supplant us runs rampant. That’s understandable; it is scary to think that a machine can do in 5 seconds what it used to take a skilled person hours or day or weeks to accomplish.
That fear, however, runs counter to our actual experience with the ways that new technologies affect the nature of human work.
In general, our various technological advances all have one thing in common – they take control of any part of human activity that functions like a commodity. In other words, if pretty much anyone can do it, eventually someone somewhere will invent some kind of machine to do that work for us. Centuries ago, the only way to move a heavy thing was to physically lift it with whatever human strength was available. The domestication of animals (which can certainly be viewed as a disruptive technology) allowed us to move things with the assistance of animal strength; then the invention of pulleys and gears and scaffolds allowed us to lift things heavier still; and a few centuries’ worth of mechanical genius have allowed us to move things our ancestors couldn’t have lifted if they wanted to.
Now on the one hand, all the people who used to lift things manually lost their lifting jobs (which by the way is mostly a very good thing). But the desire to lift things didn’t go away. We just allocated the responsibility of lifting things to our technologies and suddenly had the ability to devote our energies to more complex tasks. Architects designed buildings that weren’t possible before. Materials scientists spent their time on developing building materials that weren’t available before. Thinner walls, taller structures, more efficient designs – all of this and more exists because of our continued desire to lift things, even though we outsourced the heavy lifting itself to machines.
Now when it comes to lifting things, nobody thinks that lifting technologies are all that frightening. We’re used to the idea that being able to lift something isn’t all that impressive an ability. But there were probably people a few thousand years ago who saw the domestication of oxen as a serious threat to their position as the strongest person in the village. The thing that ultimately scares us with any new technology is learning that something we thought was a unique skill is actually a commodity, that something we thought couldn’t be replaced by machines actually can be.
For example, memorization used to be a hugely important skill, but eventually scrolls and books and calculators and the Internet gave the ability to recall information to all of us. Being the main source of information used to feel very special and powerful, but eventually search engines gave that ability to everyone. People who have a way with words used to be special, but ChatGPT has just given the ability to write well to anyone who cares to download it.
But do any of those things actually destroy jobs? Not exactly. They certainly change them, but they don’t destroy them. There are still plenty of people working in factories whose jobs revolve around lifting heavy things and putting stuff together. The written word has in no way eliminated the market for public speeches. Mathematicians used to do all their work on paper; now they use calculators and computer programs to test theories and run simulations their predecessors never even dreamed of. Librarians have transformed into media specialists who help people navigate the Internet, distinguish good source material from misinformation, and also by the way help you find whatever book you’re looking for.
As for ChatGPT and its impact on my world, my job is the same as it always is when some disruptive technology comes along – I need to figure out which parts of my job are commodities and which ones aren’t. Could a computer program write this article to say exactly what I want it say, with my particular style and sentence structure and sense of humor and punctuation preferences? Probably not. But could I ask it to spit out an outline or rough draft and then edit from there? Maybe I could, and if so, what’s wrong with that?
The endless advance of technology is most frightening to those of us who feel that the work we do is entirely a commodity, that anyone (or any sufficiently advanced machine) could do everything we currently get paid to do. But in reality, there’s nothing in our millennia-long technological advancement to suggest that human ingenuity and curiosity are commodities. As long as we continue to be interested in seeing how far we can go, technology will function as an aid in that pursuit.