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Will AI replace human workers?

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This article is an on-site version of our Working It newsletter. Sign up here to get the newsletter sent straight to your inbox every Wednesday

This week on the Working It podcast we talk all things business books. It’s an often overlooked but huge genre of the books market. As my guest, FT literary editor Frederick Studemann, tells me: “Sometimes there’s a bit of misplaced snobbery around the whole subject of business.”

Part of the problem is the enormous number of business and career titles that are published each year. So we have done the hard work for you, and if you are looking for a book to give — or to buy for yourself — we have lots of recommendations. Check out the whole shortlist for the 2022 FT Business Book of the Year prize. The winner was Chris Miller for his book Chip War, which reads a bit like a thriller.

We did our first Working It live, on-the-scene recordings at the FT Business Book awards ceremony at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. Overcoming technical issues arising from both the noise of a string quartet playing Taylor Swift medleys and the sound of hundreds of people enjoying champagne, we spoke to some of the shortlisted authors, including Matthew Campbell and Kit Chellel, who wrote my favourite book on the list, Dead in the Water.

It is a tale of murder, arson and some all round incredible investigative reporting. I’ll be giving it to my father for Christmas (look away if you are reading this, Dad). And I’ll be buying Frederick Studemann’s business book recommendation for myself — a novel called Trust by Hernan Diaz. Who says that fiction can’t be a business book, too?

Next week we take a look at the extraordinary — and very much revived for 2022 — tradition of workplace Christmas parties. Expect mayhem and bad behaviour (although not in the FT studio, where I talk to HTSI editor, Jo Ellison). (Isabel Berwick)

Top stories in the world of work:

1. The bane of the office holiday party: I’m no grinch, writes Emma Jacobs, but organised office events can swiftly stray into un-fun territory for introverts and those who prefer to keep their work life and social life separate.

2. UK businesses turn to employee-ownership at record rates: Founders looking for alternative ways to reward staff without paying them more money upfront are increasingly turning to employee ownership trusts, which make staff partners in the business — and give founders tax breaks.

Column chart of Number of EOTs set up every 12 months  showing Steep rise in UK employee ownership trusts

3. If you thought business jargon was bad . . .: It’s fun to laugh about corporate jargon, but hard-to-parse medical language persists even though it causes many patients to misunderstand the state of their own health.

4. How a researcher-turned-CEO revamped a biotech firm: Bahija Jallal knew that Immunocore had fantastic science, but investors were wary to support its series B funding round after the drug developer’s slow progress on cancer treatments. And although it took her a year to raise series B funding — completing series C took just two weeks.

5. ‘Will quitting my job to travel affect my career progression?’ In his most recent advice column, Jonathan Black points out to a reader that her concerns about having to “make up” for a year away might be misplaced. Approached strategically, a year of travel could become an asset for your future career.

Artificial intelligence may be coming for creative jobs

Artist Deb JJ Lee has a very recognisable style. So when Deb (whose pronouns are they/them) discovered AI-generated artwork posted to Reddit that bore a strong resemblance to their work, it sparked “absolute dread”. Several commenters under the original post pointed out the striking similarities between Deb’s style and the art created using artificial intelligence.

Generative AI, so called because it is capable of creating new content based on a given input, raises a host of ethical questions. Can you own an artistic style? Is generative AI any different from a human artist who is directly influenced by another’s work? It also poses a financial risk. What will happen to those who create art to make a living, now that everyone has the ability to input text or images into a model that spits out original results? “I’m one thousand per cent concerned that I will be replaced and lose job opportunities,” says Deb.

In Deb’s case, a Reddit user generated and posted the images shown below on the left, along with a link to download the DreamBooth model that was used to create them. DreamBooth is an open-source technique developed by Google and Boston University that can increase the quality of generative AI models. It’s often used in combination with Stable Diffusion, an open-source image generator developed by Stability AI. DreamBooth and Stable Diffusion — both released this year — along with other AI engines like DALL-E are all examples of generative AI tools.

The Reddit user later deleted the post, but not before more than 100 people downloaded the model. The user did not respond to a request for comment.

Illustrator Hollie Mengert, whose artwork was used to train an AI model without her consent, spoke publicly against the practice of training AI models on artists’ work without permission.

There is a long history of technological advances displacing human workers. The service industry has seen an acceleration in the adoption of technologies such as QR codes at restaurants, self-checkout in shops, AI customer service chatbots online — and even AI voice ordering at drive-thrus.

Recent advances in generative AI mean the threat of being replaced by a machine has extended beyond art to other types of creative and knowledge workers. ChatGPT, a text-based generative AI model built by OpenAI, can pen essays, write lines of code, tutor users on complex subjects — even act as a therapist.

I used ChatGPT and ParagraphAI, a Chrome plug-in, to see if they were capable of writing this newsletter for me. The tools didn’t provide new perspectives or critical thinking, but both were able to write well-articulated sentences extrapolating on the prompt I provided.

These models have the potential to be useful tools for writers — as well as programmers or artists — as they revise, tinker and troubleshoot their own work. But Deb hopes for future regulation of generative AI in order to protect the market on which they depend for their livelihood.

Deb says they would be open to using AI for their own creative process, but only in an “extremely specific scenario” where regulatory protections exist. “The process of drawing is the best part of drawing.” (Sophia Smith)

Last week’s podcast series on the four-day work week had readers weighing in with their thoughts on the most sensible path forward.

Reader Claudius Donnelly puts the four-day week in a larger historical context of how time spent at work has evolved:

When the six-day working week was proposed, the usual vested interests predicted hellfire and damnation, but it worked out fine.

When the five-day week was proposed, it was the same and everything worked out fine.

When the 40-hour working week was proposed, ditto.

Given technological developments and the rise of two-parent working families, it makes sense to move to a four-day working week. The vested interests will scream blue murder, but it will work out fine.

Sensible reader finds that the four-day week is already an unofficial reality for many workers:

Most office-based work is already four days, pretty much. No one does anything on Fridays. Phone doesn’t ring, emails quiet. I don’t believe people are really ‘writing reports’ at home — I’m certainly not. I work pretty hard Monday through Thursday and take it easy on Friday. My employer is pretty happy with most people doing the same. Bring on the official four-day week!

Reader Benckendorff hopes the answer will not be in a prescriptive schedule at all, but a more flexible and customised approach:

In the Netherlands, an employee typically works 36 hours a week, and has great freedom to schedule work time independently (within the limits of the job requirements). Most opt for nine hour days, four days a week. Others I know work from 06:00-14:00. Perhaps the solution is not to find a better one-size-fits-all, but to recognise that the optimal solution is to give the employee the freedom to schedule work. But that doesn’t seem to chime well with Anglo-Saxon work culture.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

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