If you’ve ever gotten in a black cab in London, you’ll likely have noticed just how knowledgeable your driver seems to be.
Name an address in London, and chances are they’ll know exactly where you’re talking about, and the best way to get their, within moments. That’s because for decades every black cab driver in London has been required to pass a test called the Knowledge, which requires memorizing miles and miles of London. It can take three to four years of study to pass the test, according to Transport for London.
About a decade ago now, Uber arrived in London. The Knowledge was no longer necessary to get around. With a cell phone attached to someone’s windscreen, any driver could navigate the city’s backstreets.
“Suddenly, knowing the name of each street in London was no longer valuable expertise, so that anybody with a drivers license could drive a taxi,” Professor Carl Benedikt Frey, the director of future of work at the Oxford Martin School, told me over email. “The result was more competition for incumbent taxi drivers who saw their incomes fall by around 10%.”
We could be about to see AI have a similar impact on a host of white-collar industries.
AI will lower the barrier to entry for lots of technical jobs
A recent study from Erik Brynjolfsson, Lindsey R. Raymond, and Danielle Li measured the impact of an AI-based conversational assistant on almost 5,200 customer support agents at a Fortune 500 software company. The trio found that the tool helped increase productivity by 14%, but critically, it was novice workers who benefited most.
“In contrast to studies of prior waves of computerization, we find that these gains accrue disproportionately to less-experienced and lower-skill workers,” per their academic paper. “We argue that this occurs because ML systems work by capturing and disseminating the patterns of behavior that characterize the most productive agents.”
In other words, the lessons learned from months or years of experience are baked into an AI tool. As novice workers get access to these tools, they’re able to close the gap in performance with more experienced colleagues, just like an Uber driver suddenly being able to compete with a black cab driver and their knowledge.
It isn’t just customer support work where this dynamic could take hold. Think translators, web designers, lawyers, accountants, copywriters, and HR professionals as well. The skills developed via advanced degrees or years of experience in a specific role, or in a specific company, might soon be embedded into a generative AI tool, lowering the bar to entry.
The rise of AI tools could help millions of new software developers
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella for example recently told Time that AI tools could lower the barriers to entry for software developers. Referring to Microsoft’s AI-enabled GitHub Copilot coding tool, he said:
I mean, to give you a concrete example, developers who are using GitHub Copilot are 50-odd percent more productive, staying more in the flow. We have around 100 million professional developers, we think the world probably can get to a billion professional developers. That will be a massive increase in total developers, because the barriers to being a software developer are going to come down. This doesn’t mean the great software developers won’t remain great software developers but the ability for more people to enter the field will increase.
That’s good news for many wannabe software developers, but it’s also bad news for many existing ones. What was once a highly-paid job requiring specific training might become a slightly less well-paid job that requires less training.
It’s worth noting that Uber’s arrival on the scene didn’t wipe out black taxis entirely, but rather led to a reduction in income for those drivers, per Frey’s research, and may have contributed to a reduction in the total number of licensed taxis in London. (The pandemic had a much more significant impact on driver numbers.)
“Some of these jobs, like tax preparers and web designers, could be automated away,” Frey told me, referring to the kinds of jobs that could be impacted by the rise of AI tools in the workplace.
“But for the most part, people in these jobs will just face more competition, similar to taxi drivers as Uber proliferated.”
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