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How will generative AI — such as ChatGPT — affect the workplace?


There's a history of new technologies benefiting highly paid, college-educated professionals while putting others out of work. Will the same thing happen as generative AI like ChatGPT enters the workplace? Adrian Ma and Wailin Wong from our daily economics podcast the Indicator says new research offers some reasons for optimism.

WAILIN WONG, BYLINE: Now there's no shortage of hot takes on how generative AI could affect the economy. But MIT economist Daniel Li is not really a hot takes person.

DANIELLE LI: I get stressed out when there's sort of, like, too much hype around tech.

WONG: Danielle wanted to study the effects of generative AI in the context of someone's actual job. So she and her colleagues, Lindsey Raymond and Erik Brynjolfsson, found a company that had begun experimenting with using AI in its customer contact centers, you know, the places you call or message when you can't log into your account or you keep getting an error message.

ADRIAN MA, BYLINE: The company created this virtual AI assistant, which they trained up using thousands of examples of successful customer interactions. And then the customer support employees, when they were chatting with customers, they had this AI assistant on a screen in front of them, and it would instantaneously serve up suggested responses or solutions to the customer's problems.

WONG: Danielle and her fellow researchers got six months of data from this company, thousands of customer interactions, and what they learned is, well, first, that working in customer support is not easy.

LI: If you look, you see, you know, like, lots of yelling, people writing in all caps.

WONG: Despite the unpleasant customers, it turns out with an AI assistant, it's a little bit better. One of their main findings was that workers were more productive. They measured this by looking at the number of problems workers were able to resolve in an hour and found that productivity increased 14%.

MA: they also found that customer satisfaction increased and employee turnover decreased, which suggests that the workers were more satisfied with their jobs. So in this case, Danielle says that the AI seemed to make a positive difference, not just for the customer or the company's bottom line but also for the employee.

LI: A lot of what customer service is, is about managing people's feelings 'cause people come, they're tired or whatever. And so in some sense there's kind of this sort of human soft skills component that these technologies are able to capture in a way that prior technologies couldn't.

MA: The researchers did expect generative AI to have some benefits for the employees, but what was really interesting to them was who benefited the most. Turns out, the improvements in productivity and customer satisfaction were mostly coming from relatively inexperienced workers, people who had been in the job for less than a couple of months. Danielle's co-author, Lindsey Raymond, says this makes sense when you think about it.

LINDSEY RAYMOND: Because the AI is learning from these human-generated training examples about, like, what makes a good interaction. The really experienced and really good workers are already doing that, while the newest workers have the most to gain from access to those AI recommendations.

MA: Danielle and Lindsey say just maybe what we're seeing here is the potential for generative AI to shift the old narrative - decades where technological advances have mainly benefited the most elite workers. And with these new AI tools, maybe workers who didn't have a ton of experience or elite education can get a leg up this time.

WONG: Wailin Wong.

MA: Adrian Ma, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOKHOV'S "SOLID STATE DREAMS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Wailin Wong
Wailin Wong is a long-time business and economics journalist who's reported from a Chilean mountaintop, an embalming fluid factory and lots of places in between. She is a host of The Indicator from Planet Money. Previously, she launched and co-hosted two branded podcasts for a software company and covered tech and startups for the Chicago Tribune. Wailin started her career as a correspondent for Dow Jones Newswires in Buenos Aires. In her spare time, she plays violin in one of the oldest community orchestras in the U.S.
Adrian Ma
Adrian Ma covers work, money and other "business-ish" for NPR's daily economics podcast The Indicator from Planet Money.