Sometimes it’s possible to date a historic divide, one of those rare moments when it becomes clear that a major transformation is unfolding. One such event occurred late last year, when OpenAI released the generative artificial intelligence program ChatGPT.
Venture capitalists, technologists, scholars, business leaders and millions of others have since scrambled to grasp the opportunities and threats posed by the emergence of AI. Geoffrey Hinton, one of the technology’s pioneers, recently quit his job at Google to speak freely about the dangers posed by unfettered AI development.
Yet some argue that specific applications of AI have the potential to improve society. A new study by researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, delved into the impact of AI in a real-world workplace. The findings revealed something surprising: AI integration significantly boosted productivity among lower-skilled workers.
“The most striking result to me and to the scholars is that AI disproportionately improved the work performance of less skilled and less experienced workers,” senior economics contributor Chris Farrell said in an interview with Marketplace’s David Brancaccio.
The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
David Brancaccio: This study looked at how AI played out at an actual Fortune 500 company.
Chris Farrell: And that’s what’s really striking about this study. So it’s “Generative AI at Work” by three scholars, two from MIT, one from Stanford. And the program used by the company is a recent version of the GPT family of these large language models developed by OpenAI, the ones we’ve been playing with. So this Fortune 500 company, it provides business process software and it uses AI to work with its more than 5,000 customer support agents.
Brancaccio: Well, let’s hear more about that, right? This is a pretty fast turnaround study. How did artificial intelligence play out with this specific unnamed company’s customer support agents?
Farrell: OK, so it monitors the customer chats and it provides the agents with real-time suggestions for how to respond to customer queries. Now, the AI setup is to support agents, the agents are responsible for the conversation and, just like a colleague, they’re free to ignore the AI prompts and input.
Brancaccio: All right, and if this stuff is worth anything at all, it would have increased their productivity. Is that what they found?
Farrell: That’s what they found. AI boosted productivity on average by about 14%. And that’s measured as an increase in the number of chats an agent can resolve in an hour. So I think numbers like this, David, they’re just going to convince more and more companies to adopt AI. And as far as the scholars know, by the way, theirs is the first systemic look at the impact of AI on workers in real time.
Brancaccio: All right, but not showstopping. Give me something that’ll stop traffic here from that study.
Farrell: The most striking result to me and to the scholars is that AI disproportionately improved the work performance of less skilled and less experienced workers. AI also helped these workers raise their job skills fast. So they find suggestive evidence, and I quote, “AI recommendations lead low-skill workers to communicate more like high-skill workers.”
Brancaccio: Right, and in economic terms, this increased productivity for lower-skilled workers could, if any of the benefits are ever passed through to their paychecks, help raise their standards of living.
Farrell: Well, it’s a suggestive idea. Now, the scholars are very clear. They don’t get into the bigger issues. But their calculation, David, that less skilled workers could be a major beneficiary of AI — you know, that’s really something to think about.
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