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Joaquin Phoenix in Her (2013)
Her (2013)

Who needs journalists when you can get ChatGPT to do all the work?

BuzzFeed has hired an AI to ‘help out’ with its content and quizzes – is the backlash overblown, or are we on a slippery slope to mass unemployment?

Last month, Dazed asked the chatbot ChatGPT whether it was going to take our jobs as writers. “As a language model, I am not capable of taking anyone’s job,” it reassured us. “I am a tool that can assist with tasks such as writing and editing, but I am not able to replace the creativity and unique perspective that a human writer brings to their work.”

Cut to literally two weeks later: an artificial intelligence produced by ChatGPT parent company OpenAI has been ‘hired’ by BuzzFeed, where it will apparently be put to work on the media company’s content and quizzes. This might not look so bad if Buzzfeed didn’t cut 12 per cent of its workforce in December... but it did, so it’s easy to see how the new appointment seems like every writer’s worst fears about robotic replacement are coming true.

It’s not the first time that OpenAI’s (admittedly impressive) language generator has been used as a substitute for human writers, either. Students are already using ChatGPT to conduct research and generate essays, and it’s recently proven its ability to sit exams. Programmers say it can write basic websites or help debug code. The greetings card company Moonpig is trialling it to generate customised messages in its cards (how romantic). In January, it was revealed that the tech website CNET has been using an undisclosed AI tool to write articles for months, though these stories often “required correction” by human editors, and the scheme has since been put on hold, at least until the controversy dies down.

This leads us to an ominous question: did ChatGPT lie to us about taking our jobs? Can it really replace human writers, journalists, and even the creators of those quizzes that tell you which White Lotus character you’d be? Can it automate journalism just as easily as the jobs that have been in the firing line for years, such as lorry driving and factory work, and what does that mean for the future of news? At the very least, ChatGPT has some explaining to do. 

“I cannot speak to the specific decisions made by BuzzFeed regarding their use of AI and its impact on their workforce,” says ChatGPT itself, when confronted with the suggestion that it – or technology like it – is being used to replace human writers at BuzzFeed. “However, it’s a common concern in many industries that the increasing use of AI and automation could lead to job loss for human workers. It’s important for companies to consider the ethical implications of AI adoption and take proactive steps to ensure that workers are protected and their rights and well-being are respected.”

To state the obvious, these responsibilities don’t fall under ChatGPT’s jurisdiction. It is, after all, just a robot (at least until it gains sentience, at which point we probably have some bigger problems on our hands). Right now, the real concern is how companies use or abuse the technology, and the knock-on effect that could have on their staff. So what is BuzzFeed planning to do with an AI tool like ChatGPT? Well, the company is focused on keeping “human-generated journalism in the newsroom”, according to reporting by the Wall Street Journal. CEO Jonah Peretti has also played down claims that introducing AI tech could lead to a reduction in the workforce, saying that it will instead be used to “make full-time employees more efficient and creative”.

Nevertheless, employees have raised concerns about a range of issues, from potential plagiarism (AI is built on data scraped from the internet, and has been known to imitate copyrighted material) to the ongoing threat of job losses in the future. In this case, Peretti isn’t very reassuring, noting that in 15 years AI will be able to “create, personalise, and animate the content itself”.

If you’ve been keeping up with the development and deployment of AI over the last couple of years, the scepticism of journalists who are being offered a chance to “collaborate” with AI won’t come as much of a surprise. For one, it echoes the fears of visual artists who are increasingly being made to compete with text-to-image apps, proving that the creative industries aren’t quite the safe haven they were expected to be amid the AI boom.

Of course, this is a two-sided conversation, and others argue that pessimism toward new technologies stretches back throughout history: the first mills were attacked for threatening the livelihoods of those that made textiles by hand, the printing press was denounced by monks whose job it was to hand-copy manuscripts, and the camera was billed as the death of painting in the mid-1800s. Many of these workers’ fears proved true, as well, but does that mean that we should go back to copying out every new novel by hand today? Obviously not. Instead, we’ve reshuffled our work lives to take advantage of the new technologies, and in many cases this has involved inventing new jobs that 19th century weavers – let alone mediaeval monks – could never have imagined.

Similarly, the rise of AI could help us to redefine what kind of work we find valuable and important, argue its supporters. With all the time saved on ticking boxes and churning out generic content, perhaps writers will be able to focus more on the creative, funny, or innovative elements of their work – the stuff that AI isn’t particularly good at. Would that be such a bad thing? Given the errors and plagiarism that cropped up in CNET’s AI articles, and the in-built biases that continue to plague the technology, it doesn’t seem like editors’ jobs are going anywhere anytime soon, either.

An even more utopian outlook suggests that AI will be able to usher in a post-work society where robots do take our jobs – AKA fully automated luxury communism – and wealth and time is redistributed accordingly, allowing us to labour away at whatever we want while industry plods on uninterrupted. “Utopian” seems like the important word here, though. If we’ve learned anything from past technological leaps, the result very rarely involves making life more comfortable for the masses, and very often involves concentrating wealth in the hands of those controlling said technologies – the mill owners and the printing press tycoons, so to speak.

As BuzzFeed stocks soar following the OpenAI announcement (and make no mistake, automated journalism from other companies is sure to follow) it’s certainly worth keeping an eye on who gets to reap the rewards. Will AI really open up new creative paths for writers, or simply allow media companies to churn out more of the same at a lower cost? Will it provide a much-needed correction of our work-life balance, or will capitalism simply expand to fill in the gaps? These are big questions, and unfortunately ChatGPT doesn’t have the answers. Yet.