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The U.S. and China’s different — and similar — attitudes about AI in the workplace
Sep 5, 2023

The U.S. and China’s different — and similar — attitudes about AI in the workplace

Marketplace's China correspondent, Jennifer Pak, says some companies there are leveraging AI tools because they don't want to be left behind. Some workers fear the same.

We know that artificial intelligence will change the workplace, and in some industries more than others. Also, perhaps, in some countries more than others. Today we bring you the view from China.

Marketplace’s correspondent there, Jennifer Pak, has been speaking to companies and workers in creative industries about this thorny issue. She recently visited a Chinese company that’s been playing with AI to generate animation.

Marketplace’s Lily Jamali spoke with Pak, who is in Shanghai, to explore how workers and businesses there are thinking about AI and work. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Jennifer Pak: The biggest impact we’ve seen or heard is in the video gaming sector. We’ve also heard of some adjacent industries like movie postproduction. And what we’ve seen is that their production time is cut down from sometimes months down to maybe minutes.

Lily Jamali: That is impressive. Of course, more productivity could lead to job cuts. That is certainly the big fear here in the U.S. when it comes to generative AI. What about businesses in China?

Jennifer Pak stands in a red blouse and a black blazer.
Marketplace’s Jennifer Pak

Pak: So we’ve heard that some illustrators have lost their jobs. But most of the companies I’ve been speaking to seem more interested in picking up more projects with the same amount of workers. Here’s how a visual effects and animation firm headquartered in Beijing called Base Media puts it to their staff. The boss is Chris Bremble.

Chris Bremble: I tell people the creative tools are exciting. But those creative tools are still only valuable in the hands of talented artists.

Pak: So he says his firm will continue to hire and train good talent. And with China’s economy slowing down, he really expects all the job candidates to at least know how to prompt AI tools.

Jamali: And you’ve also spoken to a few Chinese workers. How are they thinking about AI?

Pak: Well, they think that AI will replace some workers, but maybe not the more creative ones. For example, Base Media, they’re actually moving quite cautiously in this direction because it works with both clients in the U.S. and China. And while their clients in China are saying “AI, AI, AI,” the Hollywood studios that they’re working with are asking him to guarantee that no AI was used in their work.

Jamali: This is certainly a big issue where I’m based in Los Angeles. We have Hollywood actors and writers on strike now over the issue of copyright infringement and job security with generative AI. Why is there a difference, do you think, between the U.S. and China?

Pak: I think it comes down to numbers. China has a massive labor pool, it’s supercompetitive. And copyright has always been, like, an issue here, for example, but the attitude has been, yeah, you can try to fight and protect your copyright, but the market here moves so fast that by the time you do that, your competitors have now surpassed you. So a lot of workers and businesses are just seeing generative AI as another tool they have to adapt to. I think the concerns are the same in both countries. It’s just that here in China, there’s a much bigger fear of being left behind.

Jamali: And the backdrop to all of this, of course, is the economic slowdown in China, which we are certainly hearing a whole lot about here in the U.S. How does that figure into the discussion in China around generative AI?

Pak: I think that people who are just about to enter the workforce or wanting to enter the workforce — because there’s [about] 11 million new graduates this year — they are obviously very worried. But for the people who have been in the industry — the illustrators I’ve talked to, and animators, have been working for about a decade. They already have the skills, so they’re not too worried. And a lot of the businesses that I asked, whether it’s the Chinese studio, which this animation was being tested for the AI, and I said, “Well, is it going to change how you try to hire people or what you’re looking for in your workforce?” They all said no … they still want to find people who are the most creative. And these are companies at the top of their game. So I’m talking to a Tencent company that does animation, I’m talking to Base Media, which works on blockbusters for Hollywood in China, a video gaming company that does dancing, kind of educational videos. And they’re looking for the best talent and they want to retain them. That doesn’t change. They think that these workers have to be able to communicate with each other, they need to meet this schedule of demands. And they need to learn how to work in a team. That stuff doesn’t really go away. What I’ve heard is just that people who are not in the workforce are quite concerned. And so if you want to upskill, and that’s always a thing here in China, you need to stay on top of it. So one of the employers was saying that maybe prompt engineers [who productively interact with AI via text inputs] is going to be the next thing. So at the very least, I think they want to hire people who are willing to at least learn these new tools.

Jamali: What about on regulation? I mean, the U.S. has so far been pretty hands-off when it comes to regulating AI. The European Union has been working on its Artificial Intelligence Act. Where does China stand in this space?

Pak: So the government is looking into this, and they have said they’re going to be releasing some regulations, but how much input they’re actually going to get from the average worker or people in related industries is quite unclear. But certainly, they are going to come out with it. Previously, China has allowed new industries to flourish without much regulation and then kind of try to implement it afterwards to fix some of the problems — that’s what we’re seeing in the tech sector right now. But in terms of AI, I think they’re trying harder to get ahead of the game just because they could see the potential impact it could have on the workforce.

More on this

Jennifer visited Base Media, a company that specializes in visual effects and animation, and wrote about it. There is much more on her reporting from there, including pictures of cartoons before and after animators applied their AI tools.

And it seems like a good time to plug a weeklong series we recently aired and published on “Marketplace Tech” about the implications of artificial intelligence on people’s day-to-day work. The series, called “AI on the Job,” explored topics like how generative AI may create new jobs, what it means for worker productivity and how new AI tools could free up workers to do more creative projects.

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