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Potential Impact of Generative AI on the Workplace, Society

3 panelists share their takes on technology's implications

By Wisconsin School of Business

January 11, 2024

Illustration of a laptop

Artificial intelligence (AI) is evolving rapidly.

The predictions about the technology’s implications are vast—ranging from huge productivity gains for businesses to increased unemployment and from advancement in medicine to proceeding too fast for societal good.

As part of a commitment to invest in AI research and education for students, faculty, and staff, the Wisconsin School of Business sponsored an applied learning forum co-led with industry partners.

Panelists included: Scott Culpepper, general counsel, Mailchimp; Dennis McRae, managing partner, Velocity AI; and Ben Hayum, University of Wisconsin–Madison student and member of the Wisconsin AI Safety Initiative. They shared their perspectives on a variety of generative AI topics, including the effects the technology could have on business, its ability to do good and cause harm, and cautions to consider. 

Below are excerpts from the discussion:

Why should organizations care about generative AI and invest resources into it? Why should they not think of this as just another fad?

McRae: Think about what generative AI offers in terms of value. You’re getting your productivity saved. I use it in all the work I do today, and it makes me so much more efficient. After the productivity gains, you start to innovate.

If you don’t do something as a business today, what happens to you against your competitors? If your competitors start that journey, and they’re getting the productivity gains, the new revenue models, and the transformation to become more cost effective and better able to compete, what happens to the company that decides to do it a year later? Do you think they’re going to be able to catch up? I don’t know. My personal opinion is I don’t think they’re going to be able to.

Should we, can we hit the pause button as a society?

Culpepper: Practically, no. The horse is out of the barn. We’re there, and I don’t think we’re ready for it as a society, but we’re going to have to get ready. From my perspective, I think about the best we can do as a society is to try and regulate it; and that is going to be extremely challenging. It’s going to take a lot of time. I end up on the side of regulation. I think it has to be there.

What are the essential ethical questions businesses should consider when deploying generative AI?

Hayum: There are important ethical considerations like making sure algorithms aren’t biased or discriminatory, making sure to maintain people’s privacy if their personal data was trained on, perhaps not training on personal data or intellectual property in the first place, and not using exploitative labor to build your datasets. Then, we can look to the future and contemplate the blaringly obvious ethical consideration of “Let’s not allow the development of AI to be used for horribly dangerous capabilities.”

AI as a technology can be thought of as the ability to solve problems. We can solve plenty of great ones for the world as well as plenty of terrible ones. Terrible ones might include using AI to build biological weapons that lead to pandemics, execute cyberattacks that destroy critical infrastructure, target misinformation attacks to an individual’s preferences and biases by scraping their online social media activity, or concentrate power to authoritarian surveillance states.

What do you think are the most essential skills humans have that AI can’t replace?

McRae: I think a lot of it’s the physical work. Every machine needs to be maintained, and until that becomes autonomous with some level of a robot, you’re still going to need somebody to take care of the physical assets. There’s always some level of physical maintenance that needs to be done.

Hayum: I don’t think there are any skills that in the long run AI won’t be able to replace. I don’t expect my kids to need to have jobs in 20 years. But, in the meantime, I’d say having either: one, expertise in particular niche areas; or two, really good interpersonal skills are very safe career bets.

Is there a way that we stop mass unemployment from happening?

Culpepper: It’s just a question of what do we want to be as a society? And we make that decision; and that’s an advantage we have. If we decide we want to be a different kind of society, guess what? We can. And so that is the answer. Can we have regulation that does some things very, very differently because we want a different kind of society? Absolutely. I’m actually very hopeful; I’m not calling for doom from this yet. We’re going to go through a rocky period, but in the end, it’s for us to decide what kind of society we want to be.