Will AI remove the bullsh*t from bullsh*t jobs?

02.09.2023 | By Mark Speyers

I’ve added the asterisk so as not to offend. However, the 2018 best-seller that ignited the conversation about these types of jobs did not include that particular bit of punctuation.

In Bullsh*t Jobs: a Theory, anthropologist David Graeber defines a bullsh*t job as one “that is so completely pointless, unnecessary or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence.” He says those holding these jobs find themselves with little or nothing to do but must still appear to be urgently busy.

While intellectuals and economists continue to debate the analyses put forth by Graeber, many do believe his assessment to be timely. As was pointed out in a review in The Economist shortly after the book’s release, “Both meaningless job titles and mindless tasks seem to have proliferated.” With the acceleration of generative AI, perhaps both of these conclusions should be revisited.

Bullsh*t jobs and the digital worker

What exactly is a “digital worker?”

Up until a few years ago, a digital worker was categorized as an employee with digital skills. But in today’s highly technological marketplace, a digital worker is defined as a software agent that can perform tasks traditionally performed by humans. This, of course, includes artificial intelligence, software that is able to engage in complex decision making.

AI-powered digital workplaces are popping up in every industry. In a digital workplace environment, much or even most of the work is achieved through a combination of digital workers that can work 24/7, don’t require breaks or vacation time and can handle a high volume of work.

The interest in such things is, strangely, good news. The wonders of the movement of capital meant that such jobs moved offshore to cheaper labor markets over the last two decades. Slowly, these markets have moved the investments of capital with increased education and standards of living, but naturally cost of living and salary expectations have increased. So, capital looks for new ways to make products or deliver services with higher margin. That’s good news for the health of economies that were considered behind. And good news for technology that automates repetitive jobs.

Chatbots and robotic process automation offer digital worker abilities, handling customer service inquiries, providing a personalized customer experience and allowing their “bosses” to scale customer support. In manufacturing, digital workers monitor and maintain equipment, even making adjustments to the manufacturing process to improve efficiency. Healthcare digital workers analyze images and even provide diagnoses.

AI-powered digital workers are also being used in banking to detect and deter fraud, money laundering and terrorist financing. We’re doing a lot here, and the results are truly exciting.

But the question of whether or not AI will remove the bullsh*t from bullsh*t jobs is a complex one.

On one hand…

Artificial intelligence does indeed have the potential to automate many tasks considered tedious. For example, in our own banking industry, AI platforms are freeing time for financial crime investigators who normally would have to wade through thousands of alerts before coming up with a single valid report. In theory, this allows these workers to focus on more meaningful, fulfilling and materially relevant tasks and investigations.

But on the other hand…

Despite the many benefits that digital workers present, concerns also exist about their negative impact on the workforce. Jobs that become fully automated have the potential of leading to job loss and a shift in the types of jobs available.

There is a greater acceleration of these concerns with the advent of generative AI (the “we” in this blog). Here, AI is moving into the world of “knowledge management.” Not only bullsh*t jobs or those poorly dismissed as below so-called “developed economy” skills sets. This technology is going to hit the very core of how knowledge is quickly calibrated and presented. Business analysts, consultants, legal workers, educators, scientific researchers and many others are in for an extraordinary transformation over a very, very short period of time. It’s a really amazing moment in technology acceleration for business, making high-order technology rapidly accessible.  It will transform the way we create, package and leverage knowledge.

A new responsibility

The rise of the digital worker, multiplied with generative AI, is significant in the world of not just AI, but in technology-enabled business itself. Exciting, but again, we can’t ignore the potential negative impact on the workforce.

Indeed, as industry and commerce have evolved throughout the years, so has the workforce, although it has undeniably experienced its fair share of fluctuation. As recently as the early 2000s, the far-reaching use of technology began to affect low-wage, lower-education, so-called “bullsh*t” jobs, which according to the Pew Research Center resulted in positions calling for greater preparation.

Stephane Kasriel, currently Head of Commerce and Financial Technologies at Meta, predicted the following for the World Economic Forum in 2019:

  • AI and robotics will ultimately create more work, not less.
  • Technological change will keep increasing, so learning new skills will be an ongoing necessity throughout life.

The rise of the digital worker is indeed creating new job opportunities. And, indeed, in many instances, the digital workspace will free up time and resources for more innovative and fulfilling work.

Six years ago, I wrote an article pointing to the revolution that these technologies will bring our societies. Much of it is happening. One prediction I am still hoping for:

“….we will see an opportunity to find a new balance in our lives – more leisure time, more time with families, more projects and hobbies. We should look to Scandinavia, Germany, Italy and other continental European countries to see how they balance life with work. It will be difficult for the American psyche, but ultimately, it will be very healthy for society. Also at the same time population growth in technologically advanced Western societies is slowing, and a smaller labor force will naturally be the result, buffering the effect of increased automation technologies.”

A new renaissance, rebalancing our working life to more leisure and the betterment of ourselves. I still live in hope on that one.

As Kasriel notes in the WEF article, ”The most constructive discussion is not whether there will or won’t be changes, but what we should do to ensure the best, most inclusive outcomes.”

Right on, Mr. Kasriel. We must ensure that the benefits of digital workers are distributed fairly among the human workforce. Generative AI creates a digital worker able to not just do bullsh*t jobs, but also higher-order knowledge roles. The next few years will bring new operating models, a disruption of traditional approaches to creating and sharing knowledge and, again, another explosion of product and industries that leverage these multiplying innovations. It’s an exciting time.


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