I asked Audrey for her latest thoughts on the groundswell of artificial intelligence (AI) fever everyone is suffering from right now. She has always been my grounding rod in technology, and while I still find myself swept up in currents from time to time, she can almost always see through the stories. When I asked about why the AI story is being told right now, she answered simply that it was about labor in this moment. It isn’t that AI is a thing, or the average people’s lives are being shifted right now by AI, it is because business leadership desperately wants to believe they can replace workers with AI, and they invest heavily in the storytelling machine to make it come true. Spoiler, it won’t.
Sure, AI will continue to be used and advanced in new ways. We’ve had AI baked into things powering autocorrect, search, and many other common online applications for a while now, but this moment will fade just like the last one. AI will incrementally shift things here and there, and yes it will replace some jobs, but it will not come even close to 95% of the promises made today. It won’t. The stories right now aren’t about AI. Audrey is right, they are about labor. It is about creating a distraction and kicking up dust as workers are gaining more rights, demanding more pay, and pushing back on the “gig” economy. Labor unions are seeing the most positive moment they’ve seen in years, and business owners and the wealthy want to put people in their place with some good old fashioned storytelling. They are good at telling stories about how workers will be replaced, and you will be rendered useless by technology, and leaving it up to our own fears, self-doubt, and word of mouth storytelling to do the rest.
I am fascinated by how the world works like this. People down in the weeds just can’t see how our worlds work at this storytelling level. AI, robots, and automation haven’t replaced us after almost two centuries of this rhetoric, but the stories and incremental advancements in technology do wreak havoc on our lives (“wreak havoc on our lives” was the suggestion of autocorrect—-they are coming for us!! Ahhh!!!). The rich and powerful don’t believe they will replace us with AI right away. I am sure plenty have wet dreams about and would like to believe, but they do know that stories will help them maintain the upper hand in how things work. Once you stop seeing AI as about technology, and see the evidence that human workers aren’t going away anytime soon, you have to reconcile with where these stories come from, and why people believe so hard. For me, it alleviates my anxiety around why people believe so hard in AI and other technologies—-revealing how wrapped up our identities are in our work, careers, and capitalism.
I remember when Wolfram Alpha and associated AI came on the scene after 2010, and OpenAI after 2020 reminds me of the same. I wasn’t as aware of the world around me as I am now. I will have to look at the storytelling going on around AI and scrutinize it with this lens. I am guessing it will help me see through much of the storytelling and be able to stay in tune with what matters when it comes to how AI is actually being used to enhance our world versus allowing those in power to rattle our chains. I am not convinced that most people have a firm grip on reality, in the moment, or historically. The whole Trump era, QAnon, and disinformation online has revealed just how gullible we all are, and I think AI and the stories around it are just going to make things worse. I find some comfort in being able to see through stories and thankful I am not down in the trenches of a startup being expected to jump and hustle to gain some mind share when it comes to the AI storytelling, which is less about the tech, or doing something of value, and more about responding to our investor overlords.