Will AI help or hurt workers? At SXSW, the answer depends on who you ask

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At the screenings of Ryan Gosling’s new movie The Fall Guy and Sydney Sweeney’s Immaculate – headlining events of the first week of this year’s South by Southwest conference – a reel of speakers touting the merits of AI including Peter Deng, head of ChatGPT at OpenAI, was loudly booed by audiences.


In other halls of the annual Austin confab, which attracts over 300,000 people each year, the tone was one of heady optimism. Companies were spinning a positive narrative – pushing the idea that AI wouldn’t destroy jobs, but rather represented a once-in-a-generation opportunity to modernise a multitude of industries.

International Business Machines Corp chief human resources officer Nickle LaMoreaux told a SXSW panel that AI will instead alleviate labour shortages that are set to worsen as birth rates decline across developed economies. And while only a tiny percentage of jobs can be completely automated, the vast majority won’t disappear – but will change dramatically.

“It is our responsibility to go out there and set the record straight on this,” LaMoreaux said. “The thing we need to be rightfully scared about is job change – and how are we going to get ready for that.”

The sparring over AI at SXSW, a conference known as a venue to vet new ideas, was a sampling of the debate over whether AI is a force for good or bad – especially for workers. While 42% of office workers say they’re excited for AI to take over some of their tasks at work, some 27% find the prospect concerning, according to a global survey from Slack of over 10,000 employees conducted in January.

IBM made news last May when chief executive officer Arvind Krishna told Bloomberg the company expects to pause hiring for back-office roles it thinks could be replaced with AI in the coming years. “Any of you that support CEOs, you know that sometimes the worst thing they can do is go talk to the media – it makes your job a little harder,” LaMoreaux said, adding that Krishna’s comments were taken a “little out of context”.

Still, recent reports have stoked fears about AI job replacement. On Tuesday, IBM reportedly told employees it was cutting staff in its marketing and communications department, prompting more headlines about AI-related layoffs. Fintech firm Klarna said last month that its new AI chatbot tool is already doing the work of 700 full-time customer-service agents, putting the company on track to improve profits by US$40mil (RM189.10mil) this year.

Responding to a question about Klarna’s announcement, Jim Link, chief human resources officer of the Society for Human Resource Management, said that the research is mixed on what impact AI will have on jobs.


“There’s other research out there that shows that AI will actually generate more jobs than it eliminates,” he said. But nearly a year and a half into the current AI hype cycle, it remains unclear what those new AI jobs will be, aside from the much-cited “prompt engineer” and the new c-suite entrant, “chief AI officer.”

Ultimately, Link said, the moment has come for companies and workers to invest in AI training, a sentiment echoed by other executives at the conference. “Those people who are AI-savvy and have AI skills could replace those who do not have the skills,” he said. “There’s absolutely no doubt about that.”

On another panel, Donald Knight, chief people officer of hiring software company Greenhouse, waved off concerns about entry-level jobs automated away by AI. Instead, armed with new technologies, he argued younger workers will be able to do more fulfilling work and make more meaningful contributions right away, instead of shouldering the grunt work that’s traditionally been a right of passage.

“These types of tools that they’re growing up on are going to allow them to deploy creativity in your companies like you’ve never seen before,” Knight said. “It’s going to be phenomenal.”

In other rooms, the tone was more cautious. Major TV and film studios’ use of AI was a point of contention in contract talks with Hollywood writers and actors, prolonging the strike by SAG-AFTRA. Though the final deal included some protections from automation, many industry luminaries worry the provisions didn’t go far enough.

“If you’re anxious about AI, while everyone is saying, ‘Chase it! Get ahead of it!’, it’s because you know deep down, ‘Oh, we’re next’,” Daniel Kwan, co-director of Everything Everywhere All At Once, said in a keynote address. “Even if the jobs aren’t going to be lost, the value of the job will go down.”

That’s not to say we shouldn’t use AI, Kwan said: “AI is here. It is going to be rapidly deployed in every aspect of our lives.”

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