Artificial intelligence and how it may affect jobs

Scott Reeder

I refuse to use self-checkout lanes at the grocery store.

This isn’t a new thing. I just don’t like the technology. It’s not that I find it too complicated. My objection is that when I use it, I’m contributing to someone losing their job. 

Low-skill, repetitive jobs like those of checkout clerks are on the chopping blocks as technology marches onward. Perhaps I’m overly nostalgic. But I like chatting with the checkout clerks as I’m buying my milk and vegetables.

A machine has never given me a smile or suggested a less-expensive brand of flour. But some well-intentioned folks working the checkout lane have done just that.

Truck drivers may soon face a similar threat as artificial intelligence is perfected and self-driving vehicles become commonplace. I was reading a Wall Street Journal article that said the future of truck stops is imperiled. 

They may just become automatic fueling stations with no need to serve coffee, beef jerky and donuts. Showers and restrooms will become a thing of the past. Robots, after all, don’t need such things.

A whole industry scattered across rural America may atrophy away.

When I read predictions like this, it’s easy to become smug and self-congratulatory. I can applaud myself for pursuing college degrees and choosing a profession that requires thinking and creativity. 

Writing, after all, isn’t something that can be outsourced to a machine. Or can it?

This past week, I’ve been experimenting with artificial intelligence chatbots. I grew up in Galesburg, a railroad town that was the home of the poet Carl Sandburg. So just for fun, I asked a chatbot to write a poem about hometowns and railroads in Carl Sandburg’s style.

In less than three seconds, it composed this poem:

Hometown Train: I hear the train that comes from far, The one that brings me back to home, I see the smoke that trails the sky, The one that marks the way I roam, I feel the rumble and the roar, The one that shakes me to the bone, I smell the iron and the steel, The one that makes me not alone, I taste the dust and sweat and tears, The one that tells me what I've done, I touch the ticket and the rail, The one that shows me where I'm from.

If I were a high school English teacher, I’d give a student who turned that in an “A.” And frankly I couldn’t have come up with a title for the poem in the time it took my cell phone to compose it. 

That’s intimidating. Last month, I spent hours writing a sermon. (I occasionally volunteer as a lay preacher.) Just curious about the limits of artificial technology, two weeks later I asked my chatbot to compose a sermon on the same topic in the Rev. Billy Graham’s style.

Three seconds later, a full sermon appeared on my computer screen. It had the rhythm and meter of something Rev. Graham might have written. It stayed true to his Evangelical theology and emphasized Bible passages that would have been dear to one of history’s most successful evangelists. 

I sat there quietly intimidated. Could the work I do someday be outsourced to a machine? More importantly, will human beings lose their ability to compose literature on their own?

I foresee a lot of high school and college students turning to artificial intelligence – rather than their own – to write poems and compositions. It’s unlikely a teacher grading papers would know the difference.  

With such a convenient crutch, will youngsters give up on the agonizing trial and error necessary to learn to write? 

When I asked the chatbot to write a news story on a topic I had written about the previous week, the story it wrote was a disaster. I breathed a sigh of relief. 

Why did it fail? 

Well, a machine can only work with the body of information that is available to it. It can scour the internet for answers. But it can’t pick up a phone and drag answers out of a politician reluctant to give them or interview a sobbing crime victim who needs the prompting of a reassuring voice to tell her story.  

A friend who is a Canadian journalist puts it this way: Artificial intelligence plagiarizes – it doesn’t generate new information. 

Artificial intelligence lacks basic desires such as empathy, love and justice. It can only mimic those human attributes and not particularly well – for now. 

Scott Reeder, a staff writer for Illinois Times, can be reached at [email protected].