Machine intelligence, also known as artificial intelligence (AI) is going to have both an awesome and an unfortunate impact on our posterity. Let’s explore one possible way AI may impact the future of work, and how it may dramatically change how we train our workforce. This essay was originally published on November 16, 2019. If you want to understand the exponential pace of technological change, I’ve only had to change the timing of the logical conclusion – and, as you will see, this timing change strongly reinforces my assertions. Oh, and the cover art for this post was done by Stable Diffusion (details below).
The Graphic Arts Department (A Metaphor for Every Department)
A brand manager needs an advertisement. So, the brand manager sends a brief to the senior art director (in-house or at an agency) and asks for something amazing to be created. On or before the deadline, the brand manager and the art director meet to review the work. The brand manager is presented with three approaches, and after a number of meetings, a number of revisions, and revelations, they agree on a final product.
This is a process that has repeated itself for more than a century, and AI is not going to stop it (today).
After getting approvals from senior management, the art director must execute the work and deliver all of the versions and variations required. These might include a full complement of IAB (Interactive Advertising Bureau) standard ad units for the web, graphics suitable for a video graphics package, newspaper ads (in several sizes), a 30-sheet billboard, a digital billboard in several dozen aspect ratios, full-page and double truck print ads (bleed and no-bleed), and a stylebook so that the package designers and the promotion agency can access the new look and get a feel for product design and in-store signage. A list of deliverables can have hundreds of variations, each requiring subtle compositional changes, revised typography, and resizing of images.
Today, the senior art director hands this project to a group of junior art directors and graphic artists. This work is not tough, it’s just tedious, and there is a lot of it. Anywhere from a few hours to a few days to a few weeks later (depending on the length of the deliverables list), the junior art directors submit their finished work to the senior art director for final approval.
The senior art director makes some subtle changes to the deliverables that are not quite right, and the junior art directors are taught why the changes had to be made. Of course, some of the work is perfect, and it takes only a second for the senior director to approve those. All in, a major campaign might take a 10-person art department a week or so to deliver. That’s today.
The AI-assisted Graphic Artist
Now, let’s imagine the same process in a slightly different way. In this scenario, the senior art director has an AI coworker (an AI system designed and trained to version graphic artwork). Instead of harnessing a team of junior art directors to build the deliverables, the senior art director clicks a button and the AI coworker builds every required deliverable, in seconds.
Unlike handing the work to a junior team and waiting hours, days, or weeks, the work is ready immediately for review. The senior art director will still have to page through each version to give it final approval, and might even have to tweak a few of the versions to get them just right. But the basic work, the work of 10 junior art directors, will be eliminated – and so will their jobs.
From a fiscal management point of view, the senior art director’s productivity has increased exponentially. The ROI is easy to calculate: remove 10 junior people from payroll who earn between ¼ and ½ of the wages their supervisor earns. The unit will enjoy a three- to five-fold reduction in annual payroll expense, maybe more. This is an excellent path to value creation (for the shareholders).
Some Things Won’t Change for a While
The process between the brand manager and the senior art director will remain unchanged for a while. Creativity and collaboration are human traits that have a magical quality. Hits are a mystery. And while this may not always be true, today we rely on inspired, talented, uncompromising humans to create groundbreaking graphic art.
But what about the junior art directors? They will be deprived of the mentorship, remediation, and education an apprentice requires to become a master. In a world filled with senior art directors who are augmented with AI coworkers, junior art directors need not apply. BTW, in this scenario the senior art director doesn’t need to know anything about AI or computer programming; the AI system requires only a click of a button.
You Get Where This Is Going
Multiply this scenario by every department where productivity can be increased with human/machine partnerships. It’s easy to imagine millions of jobs simply being eliminated. Many of them will be people who trained a lifetime to achieve their positions. As each new purpose-built AI system comes online, the work for less productive humans will evaporate practically overnight.
Why This Will Happen
Almost every CEO will insist on using AI to push productivity to its limits. The competitive advantage is too great (if you’re first), and if you’re unfortunate enough to be a follower (fast or otherwise), an AI-augmented workforce will become table stakes. Nothing is going to stop this.
What We Really Need to Figure Out
For me, the most devastating aspect of this future vision is what happens to the farm team. Paying your dues started in the Gilded Age. I would not be where I am were it not for a series of amazing mentors, role models, and masters whom I have been lucky enough to work for. For all practical purposes, my capabilities are directly attributable to my teachers (academic and professional). If our hypothetical senior art director doesn’t need junior art directors, or if the corporation will not allow the hiring of humans who are not expert AI coworkers, how will the junior art directors learn enough to become senior?
The Logical Conclusion
If you follow this hypothesis to its logical conclusion, at some point, the senior art directors are replaced by AI systems that have seen enough awesome graphic art to create artwork that is “good enough” from scratch. To be fair, the vast majority of work product created by journeymen across all disciplines is not at a “masterpiece” level.
Update: For this revision of the article (November 20, 2022), I asked Stable Diffusion to create the cover art — cutting out the senior art director as predicted in the preceding paragraph. My request was as follows, [python scripts/txt2img.py –prompt “AI Won’t Take Your Job, People Will, book cover, advertisement, colorful, scientific, hi-tech, photo” –plms –n_iter 5 –n_samples 1]. Is it a stellar, creative, mind-blowing new work? No. It’s not supposed to be. Does it work as cover art for this post? Yes. Cost? $0. Time invested? 45 seconds. The rest of this essay articulates what I truly believe.
I like to think that the full replacement of creative workers and production workers is still far away, but I know differently. Look at the cab drivers around the world protesting ride-sharing services. They are fighting for their livelihoods. What kind of world will we live in if their actions are mimicked by displaced workers in every field, from every walk of life?
What You Can Do about It
There is only one thing you can do about this. You must become the very best AI coworker you can become. No matter how smart you think you are, there are things a well-trained AI system can do better than you can. It can look at more data, it can see the world differently, it can augment your capabilities.
How do you become a best-in-class AI coworker? Start by learning to use the existing tools, inject yourself in the process, and become a lifelong student of your art and the AI tools at the cutting edge of your profession.
This approach may not save your human co-workers, but it will position you to survive and prosper in our exponentially changing world.
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Author’s note: This is not a sponsored post. I am the author of this article and it expresses my own opinions. I am not, nor is my company, receiving compensation for it.