AI at work: partner or rival? | How Artificial Intelligence is transforming the traditional workplace

From a looming threat, AI has turned into to a clever assistant and enabler of creativity, say technocrats

February 23, 2024 03:36 pm | Updated February 24, 2024 10:08 pm IST

Over the course of the last few years, AI has disrupted almost all vocations.

Over the course of the last few years, AI has disrupted almost all vocations. | Photo Credit: AI generated image

Amar D., 50, likes to think of AI as a ‘clever junior’ — someone who doesn’t sleep, has a phenomenal head for numbers, and is open to learning. And that’s precisely what he has created for himself. Over the past six months, he has trained his Claude-2 model to talk exactly like him. “I don’t like long paragraphs, I prefer bullet points. I am irreverent but not profane. And I like to think my tone is warm,” he says, confiding that he uses AI to help draft and proofread tactical ‘business as usual’ content. As a senior executive at a multinational design and marketing firm, this saves Amar a tonne of time — time that he can spend on more creative pursuits that include designing an ad campaign or tweaking a video game.

Over the course of the last few years, AI has disrupted almost all vocations: not just the creative ones like film, TV, design or animation, but also the more corporate-oriented fields, whether that is software engineering, accounting, marketing or healthcare. According to LinkedIn’s latest ‘Future of Work’ report, from December 2022 to September 2023, conversations around AI on the platform have increased by 70% globally. In contrast, at the peak of the cryptocurrency hype, conversations around it had gone up a mere 19%. According to the report, AI stands to transform the jobs of 55% of LinkedIn members globally, and propel a 65% shift in skill sets in most jobs by 2030. Already, English- language job postings mentioning GPT or ChatGPT have increased 21X on the platform. “People across the professional spectrum are changing the way they seek opportunities as well as how they approach work, and many are actively trying to upskill themselves in latest AI tools,” says LinkedIn career expert Nirajita Banerjee.

Most people contacted for this article said that at around the same time last year, they were terrified: of being left behind, losing their jobs and becoming obsolete. But now, while the ‘creatives’ are slowly realising that AI can aid, but not necessarily replace what they do, the ‘corporates’ are discovering technology’s ability to enhance their output in many little ways. Most have started integrating AI into their work in some capacity. Some are even prepared for a radical shift in skill sets in the next few years. Change is coming, and people want to be equipped to handle it.

As a part of this essential reskilling, many companies (in the tech, BPO and consultancy space) are introducing a sandbox environment, where employees can experiment with the latest in AI technology, but at the same time, the ‘sandbox’, as it is called, is kept separate from the rest of the organisational network. It has its own server and high-speed Internet connection, which ensures that what happens there doesn’t infiltrate into the organisation as a whole. For instance, at a Chennai-based MNC, all the experimentation around AI is carried out in a sprawling den dotted with bean bags, big screens, video game consoles and a heady pioneer spirit — reminiscent of the early 2000s tech startups reinventing the world.

This company uses AI technology in two ways: first, to generate creatives (images, videos, etc.), and second, to run test ad campaigns across target audiences. For instance, a recent car commercial they worked on — with a waterfall and the northern lights in the background — was completely generated using 3D technology and AI prompts. Currently, only a very small fraction of their clients are open to AI-generated content, but this is changing fast, says a company executive on condition of anonymity. “Clients are realising that we can give them more options and faster turnaround time, all at a fraction of the cost and without compromising on quality,” he says. “This is a time of ‘reinvent or perish’.”

Creativity is king

Varsha Ramachandran, 26, is a creative producer and uses ChatGPT to sieve through potential scripts.

Varsha Ramachandran, 26, is a creative producer and uses ChatGPT to sieve through potential scripts.

A lot of creative professionals are discovering AI’s ability to act, not as artificial intelligence but ‘augmented’ intelligence, that complements their own thought processes and creativity. Varsha Ramachandran, 26, and Akshay Parvatkar, 28, met and began dating in 2019, while working at Bharatbala Productions, a Mumbai-based production house that makes films, documentaries and commercials. Today, both are fully immersed in the film and TV industry: Ramachandran is a creative producer, and Parvatkar is an independent screenwriter. Parvatkar says he uses ChatGPT as a bouncing board. “It’s almost like a co-writer situation. So, if I have an initial story idea, I’ll put it into GPT and ask it for suggestions, themes I can explore, reference films and so on.”

Akshay Parvatkar, 28, is an independent screenwriter and says he uses ChatGPT as a bouncing board.

Akshay Parvatkar, 28, is an independent screenwriter and says he uses ChatGPT as a bouncing board.

He is currently working on an OTT series about a sport set on a fictional island. He wanted it to be a unique kind of island — situated on the equator, with a landscape that has both mountains and the ocean. Using ChatGPT, he created a detailed Wikipedia page for his non-existent island — even supplementing it with AI-generated images created using Adobe Firefly. “This helps producers visualise the story, so that we’re all on the same page about what the series will look like,” he says.

Ramachandran’s work begins where Parvatkar’s ends. Her job involves carrying a script from its initial pitch stages to final conceptualisation. For starters, she uses ChatGPT to go through hundreds of pitches, asking it to summarise them in a few sentences, before deciding which ones to take further. Once a script is approved, AI again proves useful in finding information needed to detail plotlines.

For a recent project, she wanted a doctor’s character to provide solutions to a problem that could be easily misdiagnosed. “So I put in the symptoms — gas, stomach ache, bloating — into ChatGPT, and it gave me various possibilities like kidney stones, IBS, and even alcoholism,” she says. “It’s much easier to get this vetted by a medical professional rather than ask them about stuff from scratch.” Both are far from worried about AI taking over their jobs; in fact, they believe that while AI can be a great support to creativity, it can never be wholly original itself.

Artist Vibhor Sogani

Artist Vibhor Sogani

“With the advent of AI, we will see some very interesting and exciting forms of dynamic art around us. The whole definition of installation art is likely to change. Technology will drive the process and design thinking, and immersive art will become more powerful and popular.”Vibhor SoganiArtist who exhibited at the 12th Amsterdam Light Festival, whose theme was Revealing Art, AI and Tech

AI’s penetration in the arts was also evident at the recent inaugural Comic Con held in Chennai, though the response has been mixed. Publisher Ravi Raj Ahuja, 40, of Bullseye Press stood behind his booth, animatedly interacting with readers who came to enquire about his books, most of which spotlight Indian themes. All of his comics are written by enthusiasts, illustrated by artists, and edited and lettered by himself. The one exception was last year, when, giving in to the AI hype, Ahuja put an AI-generated woman’s image on the back cover of one of his comics. The backlash was instant. “We got messages from fans saying the artwork looked fake,” he recalls, admitting that he regretted the decision almost immediately. Subsequently, he decided to refrain from using AI-generated artwork, as the “soul is missing”.

Publisher Ravi Raj Ahuja

Publisher Ravi Raj Ahuja

At the same convention was Hassan Mehmood Shahid Sheikh – Sheikh is not a graphic artist; neither is he an avid comic reader. Nevertheless, his booth at the Comic Con was among the most popular, so much so that it was hard to see him behind the throng of people. Everyone wanted to get a glimpse of his robotic arm that was drawing people’s portraits in real time. The process was simple: you took a selfie, AI converted your selfie into a sketch, and the robotic arm drew out that sketch on a piece of paper. The whole process took a total of 5 minutes, and over two days, his arm drew more than 550 portraits. Granted that the sketches were pretty bare bones, and sometimes half of people’s faces were missing, but still – it was undeniably impressive to watch. Sheikh is emphatic that AI is the future. “A lot of Japanese manga already uses AI imagery, and it won’t be long before most comics take it up,” says the 26-year-old.

Hassan Mehmood Shahid Sheikh at the Chennai Comic Con this year.

Hassan Mehmood Shahid Sheikh at the Chennai Comic Con this year.

In education and finance

At the other end of the spectrum are the ‘corporates’, with software engineering in particular often touted as one of the professions at the forefront of the AI groundswell. Ashok Singh, 44, is AVP-Technology at MRCC, a Massachusetts-based IT solutions company. He says one of his most important functions is to leverage AI in day-to-day work. His clients include online publishers and e-learning platforms, many of whom are looking to optimise learning for students.

Ashok Singh is AVP-Technology at MRCC, a Massachusetts-based IT solutions company.

Ashok Singh is AVP-Technology at MRCC, a Massachusetts-based IT solutions company.

His team recently built an AI bot called Mio, which works in a similar way to ChatGPT, but instead of searching the whole of the Internet, it restricts its answers to the client’s database. “How it works is, we give you a simple one-line code that you have to insert into your main index file. So the bot will sit within your content, and the moment you ask a question, it will hit GPT to give you a response from within your content,” explains Singh. Bots like Mio are particularly useful for providing personalised guidance to students who may be lagging behind, he adds.

As Singh sees it, AI has heralded a big shift in his industry: clients no longer want someone to fulfil mere programming needs, but are looking for consultants who can leverage the latest technology to solve unique problems. “Increasingly, it doesn’t matter whether you know Java, Python or .Net, or how well you can write code. Because AI can do all this for you. Instead, what’s needed are sharp, analytical minds smart enough to design solutions that you can simply plug and play.”

Then there is finance and accounting, a vocation hinged on numbers and their hallowed power. But what most people don’t know is that these professionals are the most up-to-date on current developments. In fact, there’s an internal joke: that every Chartered Accountant (CA) recalls when he graduated by thinking back to who the Finance Minister was that year — “Because our syllabus would change with every FM,” says Rishabh Raja (33), a Bengaluru-based CA who runs his own firm. It’s no wonder that it hasn’t taken long for most accountants to adapt to AI, especially if they’re based in a city like Bengaluru, where discussions around technology and how to leverage it are ubiquitous.

Rishabh Raja, Bengaluru-based Chartered Accountant.

Rishabh Raja, Bengaluru-based Chartered Accountant.

Raja has teamed up with local IT companies that are in the process of building AI tools for accounting. One such tool is called talkbase.io, which allows you to upload documents and gives analytics, trends and projections based on them. Raja says his work takes off where AI’s ends. “Advisory work goes beyond just crunching numbers and pointing out a trend. My professional opinion will take into account the clients’ priorities and vision, and match that with the current market to come up with a holistic strategy.”

He doesn’t believe CA jobs are under threat but acknowledges that increasingly, he’s looking for experienced people who can go beyond what AI already does. Where this leaves newly minted freshers remains to be seen.

Uncharted territory

If AI were a literal machine, data would be the oil that keeps it running. That’s precisely what Nakul Jain has realised over his time at Wadhwani AI, a Mumbai-based nonprofit developing AI solutions for the social sector. Jain is the Director-Solutions, and one of his latest projects has involved building an AI tool that helps the government’s Integrated Disease Surveillance Program track the outbreak of infectious diseases. “We wanted to help the Media Disease Surveillance and Verification Cell (MSVC) automate the tracking of media events to complement their manual efforts of monitoring disease outbreaks,” says Jain.

Nakul Jain is Director-Solutions at Wadhwani AI, a Mumbai-based nonprofit. 

Nakul Jain is Director-Solutions at Wadhwani AI, a Mumbai-based nonprofit. 

Essentially, what their tool did was track news around any new outbreaks of diseases, and alert officials to possible threats in time. For this, they trained it on hundreds and thousands of media articles spanning different websites. “We ensured the model could gather fresh media articles in 10 Indian languages using crawlers and Google alerts. We put filters for international events, classified media articles into relevant categories, and combined related articles to avoid showing duplicates to the end users,” says Jain. Their tool was officially incorporated into the government’s Integrated Health Information Platform in April 2022, and till date, has scanned over 35 million articles to notify multiple potential outbreaks, says Jain.

As impressive as this is, there is also a flipside. As professionals across the spectrum take to AI in different, often unprecedented, ways, concerns around data security have only increased. It is hard to say where your information is stored, and who is doing what with it. Various governments have tried responding to it the only way they know: by enacting new laws and regulations, whether that is the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in Europe or the Digital Personal Data Protection Act in India.

But experts say we are far from prepared for the changes to come. The landscape is changing faster than any regulation. Each day, around 20 new AI tools enter the market, so much so that it’s hard for even dedicated professionals like Amar to keep track. If history is any indication, the way governments respond to such changes is by brute force. “Suppose someone hacks Aadhaar, takes my personal data and puts out pictures of me in a monkey suit. I’ll sue Aadhaar and before you know it, the government will clamp down on all AI tools,” concludes Amar.

AI-generated Karunanidhi deepfake

AI-generated Karunanidhi deepfake

AI in politics
Sixty different countries are set to hold elections in 2024, and AI is likely to be a factor to watch out for in the lead-up to polls in several places. According to an article in Al Jazeera, AI-facilitated content marketing for election campaigns, including outbound voice calls and SMS, avatar creation, and AI-generated creatives, is an estimated $60 million market opportunity in India this election year. Senthil Nayagam, founder of media tech startup Muonium AI, has been dabbling in this space for the past six months, from resurrecting a dead Karunanidhi in videos for the ruling DMK party, to cloning Prime Minister Modi’s voice and dubbing his ‘Mann ki Baat’ address into 24 regional languages. “How can DMK forget Karunanidhi?” says DMK spokesperson P. Wilson, explaining their reasoning. “All our ministers bring him up in speeches, so why wouldn’t we resurrect him?”. Interestingly, Wilson has spoken up in Parliament on the need to regulate AI. Amber Sinha, senior fellow for Trustworthy AI at Mozilla Foundation, agrees. “There has to be some regulation around AI, at least in the context of elections. Both when it comes to platforms, where they create systems to detect deep fakes and take them down, as well as rigorous fact checking by media and civil society organisations,” says Sinha.

neha.vm@thehindu.co.in

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