Automation is “way better” than fallible humans when it comes to many tasks—but it can’t come close to comparing when a job calls for physical presence. In other words, don’t be afraid of A.I. stealing your job … unless you work fully remotely.
That’s what Nick Bloom, Stanford economist and the brains behind remote work research group WFH Research said on a webinar earlier this month.
“If I were fully remote, you could replicate me with A.I.,” Bloom said on the virtual panel, which was hosted by software firm Scoop. “You could get close to my image. You could do my voice. You could probably get much of the discussion from ChatGPT.”
This is the last thing remote workers want to hear, especially those who have been pushing against their employers’ growing return to office mandates, which are reaching a fever pitch as the Labor Day deadline looms.
Luckily, despite ample fear-mongering, Bloom doesn’t anticipate most workers have much reason to worry. The main workers who would be potential A.I. victims are those with easily outsource-able jobs, he explained. “So: fully remote, relatively low-level things like call centers, data entry, payroll,” Bloom said. “This stuff is at real risk of being replaced by A.I. in the next three to five years.”
On the other side of things, hybrid workers—whose jobs rely, in some part, on in-person work—are almost certainly safe for now. Bloom, who teaches economics courses in classrooms in Palo Alto during the school year, used his own job as an example. “If I have to go in and teach people, the robots [that could do the same] are enormously clunky—like, 2000 pounds,” he said. “There’s no way any robots will look like a human, even within the next 10 years.”
There’s also, naturally, the interpersonal human element that even the most advanced ChatGPT still lacks. “It doesn’t have the empathy,” Bloom said. As a result, for hybrid workers, A.I. and ChatGPT can be more of a complement than a threat.
“If you’re coming into the office two or three days a week, [A.I.] is probably going to support you and make you more productive,” Bloom said, adding that he’s seen his graduate students use it for coding assistance with great success. “I think we’re going to see a lot of impact [among] low-level, fully remote workers.”
The risk is greater, he went on, for workers in countries like India, the Philippines, Mexico, and South America where many such jobs are based. “A friend of mine in the call center industry in Indonesia India actually has already said that employment is going down because of chatbots,” he added.
Perhaps this news will encourage intransigent remote workers to give the office another chance. (After all, making ends meet is hard enough as it is, without having to worry about layoffs or outsourced work.) But even with the looming threat of tech replacement, Bloom’s not so sure. Indeed, office occupancy data is “flat as a pancake,” he said later in the webinar. “We’re not heading into the office, but we’re not heading out either. It is completely level.”
The latest data from building security firm Kastle backs Bloom up. It found that offices were just under half-full last week (with 47.2% occupancy) in the top 10 U.S. metro areas—a number that’s been roughly unchanged for over two years.
It’s anyone’s guess whether the fourth annual Labor Day return to office push will be any more successful than the last. (Especially with a new Covid wave blanketing the U.S.) But Bloom, the authority on remote work trends, has a fairly confident guess. “It feels like the [score of the] last three years has been, Work from home—three; return to office—zero,” he said. “This is not a match that RTO is winning.”