Friday, July 21, 2023

A Fast Run Through the First Artificial Intelligence Backlash

When the AI story broke in the spring, most articles expressed amazement, and tried to cover the matter without hype.  Soon thereafter, the possibility of a major AI-caused disaster took over, and people wrote long, hazy pieces speculating on the chance of humanity going extinct under ChatGPT’s virtual boot.  For the next couple of months, AI dominated the technology-related press, to the point where I could not find any material for the regular robotic subsegments on my radio gigs.  It weakened in late May and early June, when commentators seemed to be talked out, and reappeared with a different tone last month, as a combination of reservations, limitations, negative thoughts, and legal reactions, combined with a lack of new AI achievements, took over.  Here I will go through 12 published things from the past eight weeks.

It's a blessing when a powerful group admits they don’t understand something, so it was good to read that “Congress seeks crash course on AI from insiders,” by Cat Zakrzewski and Cristiano Lima, in the June 18th Washington Post.  Legislators hope to achieve, per Representative Mark Takano of California, “a repository of expertise that is more in an anticipatory mode, that has quicker turnarounds, that can deliver responses more quickly,” and “is not tainted or connected to commercial interests.”  Let us wish them success.

Five days later we read in, “US lawyers fined $5,000 after including fake case citations generated by ChatGPT” (Sarah Fielding).  AI laziness is already a phenomenon, and this kind of result – both errors and a judge discovering them – could sink the technology for many valuable-seeming purposes.  As people have fooled driverless cars through their data-collecting systems, they could large language models, by publishing bogus legal precedents and other “factual” accounts of things which did not happen.  Confusing reality with fiction is also why we need to see “How AI will revolutionize politics in 2024, and why voters must be vigilant” (Brian Athey, Fox News, June 2nd).  Beyond ability to generate high-quality videos and other campaign tools, it can produce “misinformation, deep fakes and… imagery.”  As we learned in the past two elections about voters absorbing untruths, we can see that there will be plenty more next year, some of which may be blocked, as “A.I.’s Use in Elections Sets Off a Scramble for Guardrails” (Tiffany Hsu and Steven Lee Myers, The New York Times, June 25th). 

In five days there were three actions taken against the technology.  Per Riddhi Setty in Bloomberg Law on July 10th, “Sarah Silverman, Authors Hit OpenAI, Meta With Copyright Suits.”  We’re in the early stages of automata not only absorbing proprietary material but circulating it uncredited.  These class-action efforts were filed by three authors, and could become landmarks.  In The Economist’s July 14th “The World in Brief,” we saw that “America’s Federal Trade Commission opened an inquiry into OpenAI’s handling of consumer data and security practices… reportedly probing whether the startup’s products – principally ChatGPT – could cause reputational damage by publishing misleading information about real people,” and “that training artificial intelligence on personal information could be a form of fraud.”  The same source reported that the Hollywood writers and actors now on strike, among other things, are “also asking for guarantees that AI will not be used to replace them,” which may be the first time surging unions took on burgeoning technology but surely won’t be the last.

The common thread here is AI’s use of incoming data.  That has recently gone further elsewhere, as “’Not for Machines to Harvest’: Data Revolts Break Out Against A.I.” (Sheera Frenkel and Stuart A. Thompson, July 15th, The New York Times.)  The lead example is from an author who discovered that “a data company had copied her stories and fed them into the artificial intelligence technology underlying ChatGPT.”  Nothing should be controversial here – for decades, routine copyright notices have proscribed putting such content into electronic banks – and this, if anything, is worse.  Expanding even more is “Big Tech took your data to train AI.  We’re suing them for it” (Ryan Clarkson, Fox News, July 19th).  It’s no certainty that companies can use personal information without clear permission.  Overall, we’re heading for a huge legal collision, and it doesn’t look good for AI.

One odd thing about AI has been its practitioners asking for more regulation.  That doesn’t seem like a way of getting a competitive advantage, such as McDonald’s supporting higher minimum wages knowing they can withstand them better than their competitors, but shows not only uncertainty about its safety but also the tendency of experts closer to a field being more pessimistic than general prognosticators, as documented in “Bringing down the curtain” (The Economist, July 15th). That may account for the newly visible AI startup, Anthropic, (“Inside the White-Hot Center of A.I. Doomerism,” Kevin Roose, The New York Times, July 11th), with huge office signs saying THINK SAFETY on display, workers talking freely about their products’ severe dangers, and many reading about nuclear bomb history and comparing “themselves to modern-day (bomb-inventing) Robert Oppenheimers.” 

Yet the last word, for now, goes to something very American.  In “A Blessing and a Boogeyman: Advertisers Warily Embrace A.I.” (July 18th, The New York Times), in which authors Tiffany Hsu and Yiwen Lu related how products are mentioning the technology in their pitches, from the aforementioned restaurant chain citing a ChatGPT endorsement-of-sorts to “digital avatars” of famous people hawking products.  There will be much more – there need be no existential uncertainty about that.

I will have no post next week.  I will return with the jobs report and AJSN two weeks from this morning.

Friday, July 14, 2023

Employee Choices: Work Tasks, Life Balance, Career Portfolios, Gigs, Other Side Hustles

Workers have not only different choices to improve their positions, but more than before.  Beyond the permanent possibility of just changing jobs, there are others with various merits and considerations.

One is during business hours, the idea that people should “Learn to Say “No” to Extra Work” (Jane Wells, Jane Wells Bulletin, August 29th).  It is geared toward women, with the author claiming that they get most of the unrewarding assignments.  Whether or not that is true, the issue is real.  Most cubicle-job workers have opportunities to take on and decline tasks, more than many realize.  Suggestions the author cited from a book on this subject were not to accept assignments that cannot lead to promotions, not to join a “board or committee (At Least Not Long-Term),” not to respond at all to emails offering such tasks, and, when such is offered at a meeting, to “mimic the behavior of… colleagues who have no plan to raise their hands by shuffling papers, getting up to leave, refusing to make eye contact.”  Anyone who sees themselves doing the opposites of these should consider changing tactics.  The challenge is that career-strong assignments are often not easy to identify or, especially, to obtain.

An old expression brought to the fore by our chaotic remote-work situation is the subject of “Work-life balance matters to employees – how to find out if it matters to a company” (Lee Hafner, Employee Benefits, January 5).  Per a FlexJobs career services manager, one way is to ask, at interview time, “What would a typical work week look like?”  Another to ask is “how employees are encouraged to have a work-life balance.”  Job seekers should also determine if the company has “a strong onboarding plan.”  All valuable, but it is necessary for everyone to know specifically what “work-life balance” means personally to them.

In Yahoo News on January 3rd, Scott Sonenshein told us that “Americans are taking more control over their work lives – because they have to.”  As the author put it, “the pandemic accelerated a development that began years ago when workers realized they needed to take on more responsibility for directing their careers,” which led to “career portfolioing,” or assembling and maintaining multiple income.  sources.  That is nothing new in, to name two countries, Iceland and the Bahamas, but it is not traditionally American.  The largest advantage beyond sheer money is that “when facing difficult times at one job, people can turn to other parts of their career portfolio for security and stability.”  If, indeed, you see “a future in which uncertainty is too high to rely on a single institution to fulfill basic needs,” expanding into a portfolio may be for you.

One common addition to such income groupings comes with its own hazards.  To deal with them, Lee Hafner’s May 25th Benefits News piece, “4 ways gig workers can protect themselves from scams and lawsuits,” may help.  His suggestions are to “choose the right insurance,” as gig workers are legally vulnerable independent contractors, “consult an insurance expert” especially one on the kind of gig work you want to do, “invest in strong cybersecurity” to avoid being responsible for stolen material, and “make a contract, check it twice,” with emphasis on minimizing liability.  These precautions may be more valuable for tasks like the wood drilling pictured with the article than for others, but are worthy of consideration.

Finally, another old thing is becoming new to some in “Beyond ‘Quiet Quitting’: Another Workplace Trend is Making Employers Even Angrier” (Veronika Bondarenko, The Street, May 30th).  According to “a wide-scale study conducted by consulting firm Deloitte, 46% of polled Generation Z workers and 37% of millennials said that they worked a second part-time or even full-time job in tandem to their main work.”  Not all of these were related to their primary field, as “some of the most popular side hustles include selling online products, delivering food orders or working for a ride-share company and writing marketing materials.”  Per related Bankrate research, such endeavors are “often a way for low-earning employees to keep up with the cost of living,” with the money it brings in “essential.”  Working two jobs to make ends meet is nothing new, and employers, if it does not involve using company resources, should tolerate it.  Or they could just pay more.  As coarse as that seems, it would alleviate or totally remove many of the issues here.  Choices on these issues are not, after all, always made by workers. 

Friday, July 7, 2023

June Jobs Report: Both Seeking and Hiring Vigorous, AJSN Says Latent Demand Up 400,000

This morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary was supposed to be especially important, especially for investments and interest rates.  So what happened?

At 209,000, the number of net new nonfarm payroll positions fell a sliver short of a 225,000 prediction.  Adjusted unemployment lost 0.1% to reach 3.6%, with the unadjusted variety up 0.4%, seasonally, to 3.8%.  Total employed increased 557,000 to 161,559,000, with the number of people not interested down 867,000, on top of last month’s 1.15 million, to just over 93 million.  The count of unemployed, measured seasonally, was off 100,000 but actually rose 650,000. 

While the number of those officially jobless for 27 weeks or longer, at 1.1 million, was down 100,000, the count working part-time for economic reasons, or keeping shorter-hours positions while seeking full-time ones, soared over 400,000 and is now 4.2 million.  The labor force participation rate was 62.6% for the fourth straight month, and the employment-population ratio sat at 60.3 percent.  Average hourly private nonfarm payroll earnings increased 12 cents, more than inflation, and are now $33.58.

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the measure showing how many more opportunities could be quickly filled if all knew they would be easy and routine to get, increased 380,000 to the following:


People with the statuses of marginal attachment, the second through eighth rows here, sharply decreased in number, with the three largest changes reducing the AJSN.  The share of the metric from those formally unemployed increased 2.8% to 34.1%, meaning that almost two thirds of those not working who would accept a suitable but now unadvertised position have another status.  Compared with a year before, the AJSN has lost 268,000, most of which was from fewer people wanting work but not looking for it during the past year.

What happened this time?  There are ever more jobs, more people wanting them, more getting and keeping them, and more people seeking more hours.  Despite our aging population, the number of people not in the labor force fell by one million.  Latent demand increased again, despite net new positions outstripping our population rises, as additional people – two million more than in April – said they are interested in work.  The employment situation is dynamic all around, and that is nothing to take for granted.  The turtle, once again, took a robust step forward.