ChatGPT Has Already Decreased My Income Security, and Likely Yours Too
Note: You can also listen to this post thanks to an AI I trained with my voice
Most of you have by now heard of ChatGPT already, but if you haven't, first I'm happy to hear you're out of your coma, and second, it's what's called a "generative artificial intelligence" that was built by OpenAI to generate machine-learning derived text from human prompts. What you also may not know, because so much is happening so quickly, is how it has scared the bejesus out of Google, and a generative AI race has officially begun. Here's a video to get you up to speed.
In short, ChatGPT is the fastest service to ever hit 100 million subscribers, and Google's dominance is legitimately threatened by Microsoft who bet on it. With Google suddenly very concerned for its future, it's investing big in its own generative AI solutions, and the two companies are each quickly upgrading their services to utilize generative AI.
Because ChatGPT is so hugely popular and experiencing truly massive demand already, you may not have been able to actually personally use it yet, but suffice to say, it's kind of like magic. And it's still early days. Newer versions trained on orders of magnitude more data are still to come, while the current state-of-the-art is already as capable as humans at passing the Wharton MBA exam (with a B or B-), a final exam in microbiology (with an A), law school exams (with a C+), a Google coding interview for a level 3 engineer with a $183,000 salary, and it can barely pass the US Medical Licensing Exam to be a doctor (with a 60% where passing is 60%). More recently, it's even passed "theory of mind" psychological tests with the same capability as a kid at age 9. This is all as of early February 2023. This level of performance will only improve - and quickly.
Here's the thing though. As people begin to shift away from doing Google searches and clicking link after link to find what they're looking for, and instead just let AI answer their questions, fewer links will be clicked. Fewer articles and blog posts will ever actually be read. This means those articles will earn less advertising revenue and those blog posts will result in fewer people becoming patrons on creator-centered platforms like Patreon.
That last one is what interests me in particular, because it directly impacts me. And if I'm able to sufficiently explain how it's already impacting me, I think you'll understand why you're likely already being impacted too.
In 2014 I started blogging about the concept of unconditional basic income. I was inspired by how quickly technology was advancing and how no one was really talking solutions or even the need for solutions. In order to focus full-time on my writing and UBI advocacy, I started my Patreon account where people could support my writing and UBI advocacy with monthly donations. By 2016, I was earning over $1,000 a month via my Patreon, which enabled me to never look back and just focus 100% on my writing and UBI advocacy, which continues to this day.
Part of being a successful creator on Patreon is getting what you create seen and enjoyed by others. So the more views a piece of content gets, the more likely someone who enjoyed it will become a monthly patron. This is also how ad-revenue works, albeit with a different quality factor. Ad revenue only cares about clicks. Patreon revenue cares about quality, where the more someone likes someone's content, and the more people who enjoy that content, the more likely someone is to support more content from that creator. Both Patreon and ad revenue depend on people clicking on your content though. Enter ChatGPT.
ChatGPT is like the world's most voracious consumer of content. It has read more than any human being could ever read. It has already read virtually the entire internet, and as time goes on, it will read more and more. And part of what it has read is my stuff. It therefore has the ability to save people the time of actually reading my stuff. On the one hand, this is great. If my ideas are reaching more people, I'm happy with that. What I truly care about is the idea of UBI that I advocate. So if someone can ask ChatGPT about UBI and get an answer that they're happy with, and I'm happy with, we're both happy. But that also means they aren't actually reading my stuff and instead getting a distilled version. And that means fewer clicks, which means fewer people ever learning about my work, which means fewer people supporting my work.
At this point in time, it's possible that perhaps just one person who would have read my blog and become a patron decided instead to just ask ChatGPT about UBI. Let's say that's happened and I'm earning $2 a month less than I otherwise would have because of it. Not a big deal, right? No, at least not yet. But more widespread ChatGPT usage is coming, as are its competitors. And it does not matter if these tools provide links back to me. Wikipedia is full of links. How much traffic do people get from those links? Most people just see that something has a citation. Most don't click the citation, let alone read the cited work.
Think of a food blogger that has a bunch of recipes. Right now, someone searching for a recipe can happen upon their blog, giving that page a view and perhaps other pages as well if the person is particularly impressed by the recipe. With ChatGPT, people just ask for a recipe and it gives them one. They can even ask the AI to modify the recipe. No clicks. Just information. This is why Google is so worried and why the AI race has begun. Searching for information is about to experience a paradigm shift as big as using browsers instead of phone books.
We are headed towards a future where people just ask their AI assistant about stuff, and that AI answers questions using massive amounts of stuff humans like me have written which trained them. And humans like me who depended on people actually reading their stuff lose out on those readers, and thus that income.
I now face a choice, which I think others will soon find themselves facing as well. There is a solution to having less of your stuff read; it's making even more stuff. I could use ChatGPT to accomplish this. Thus, one potential road I could take is to try and 10x my output. Instead of say two to four articles a month, I could try for twenty, and ChatGPT could help me do that. So that's one thing all content creators will face as a potential solution. Instead of competing against AI, use it to increase your productivity. That will require people learning how to use AI well. Not everyone is going to be able to do that successfully, nor will everyone want to.
Another path creators could take is to lean into building and fostering community. If people really care about what you specifically think about something, they won't care what ChatGPT says. What they want to know is what you as a specific individual have to say. This is the subscriber route of building a faithful following of loyal subscribers who really truly care what you create and want to consume it because you, not anyone else, created it. It's the personal touch and connection that people crave here. So if ChatGPT is making it so that less of your stuff is read, instead of making much more stuff to compensate, you could also focus on building a loyal community of fans. Not everyone is going to be able to make this change successfully either, nor will everyone want to.
There is a third choice for creators, but this one I really do not recommend at all, and it's to lean into the algorithms. The stuff that gets shared more is the stuff that makes people angry. It's also the stuff that lies and just tells people what they want to hear. Outrage gets lots of views. Disinformation gets lots of views. You can build a loyal audience as a purveyor of extremes and falsehoods. Creators who take that route will do better, which is why we'll see even more of that which we're already seeing. This is an adaptation I'm not looking forward to. It's a maladaptation.
What's most important to understand though is that unless content creators adapt, many of them will become worse off financially as AI users click on less of their content. Some will adapt and become even better off, while others will definitely become worse off. And this isn't only going to hit writers. This will hit many people doing all kinds of work. When people can just get legal advice from ChatGPT, and feel confident about the advice, lawyers are going to get fewer clients. Lawyers will need to adapt by using ChatGPT to be even more productive, or they'll need to lean into the human touch, or they'll see reduced incomes.
The same is true with artists and AIs like Midjourney. Fewer people will be wanting to pay artists when they can just prompt Midjourney for it, and artists can choose to use Midjourney to increase or improve their output, or they can lean into building a loyal fan base, or they'll see reduced incomes. Generative AI isn't stopping at text and images either. It's already doing speech. It's already doing music. It's already doing short videos. It's even already doing movies.
Over and over again, this will be the basic choice people will need to make in a world of AI. You'll either learn how to use AI to increase your productivity, or you'll need to really focus on the quality of being a unique human being whose work people particularly care about, or you will be left behind economically and need to find something else to earn money, even if you don't want to find something else. That will likely require gaining new skills or just finding whatever paid work you can find, regardless of the amount of pay or security it provides.
You may be thinking that your particular income isn't impacted at all by any existing forms of generative AI. Here's the thing though, whatever you do for money, you likely depend on other people having money to spend, and if other people are slowly having less money to spend, you yourself may slowly earn less money. Don't only think of first-order effects. Think second and third order. AI will drain consumer spending power from the economy as it further increases inequality. Our economy is 70% consumer-based.
Income security is a feeling. Your income can remain unchanged, but if you feel less secure in the stability of your future income, that still has an impact. A 2018 study of automation found that just being exposed to a heightened risk of one's job being automated was associated with negative health outcomes. The study concluded that "a 10% increase in automation risk at county-level is associated with 2.38, 0.8, and 0.6 percentage point lower general, physical, and mental health, respectively." A distinguished economist even just published a new book about how he believes that rising insecurity, not poverty or inequality is what's chiefly responsible for the democratic backsliding happening around the world.
It is at this point I want to remind everyone again, that we are being displaced by something trained on our own work. We all together created the content that trained the AIs. History is full of humankind standing on the shoulders of those who came before us, and now AI is standing on our shoulders. We're the ones that made it possible. So why don't we recognize that we all rightfully deserve to all be better off? None of us earned being born now instead of 200 years ago.
What AI is already capable of should be celebrated. It's amazing. It can save so much time and enable so much more productivity. But we should all share in that collective productivity increase as it continues to improve. It shouldn't be the case that some people win big while many, if not most, lose. AI is a collective accomplishment and an inheritance. Humanity got to this point together with each generation building upon the work of previous generations. And now this generation even helped train AI with our own work.
From the very beginning of my interest in unconditional basic income back in 2013, I saw what appeared to be a fork in the road up ahead in the mid-2020s, where mass economic displacement would start happening thanks to robotics and AI. This entire time, I've seen this as a question of utopia vs dystopia where the status quo as a choice just doesn't exist. Things can either get a lot worse now, or they can get a lot better. Which path we take is up to us.
A study in 2021 simulated the impacts of automation at a global level and found that automation would grow economies around the world but leave many people in those countries worse off. Without basic income that is. With basic income, automation became "a win-win for all generations in a region." A more recent macroeconomic model of automation and UBI in 2022 by Cambridge Econometrics found that because of the income-reducing impact of automation, taxes wouldn't even be necessary to achieve UBI without excess inflation.
I see UBI as the wise path where technological advances work for the benefit of everyone. UBI can be a literal dividend, where a percentage of productivity growth flows to everyone equally as our share of the work that machines are doing. So long as we don't implement UBI, the benefits of robots and AI will be highly unequally distributed, just as they've already been for the past half-century of tech progress, where $50 trillion in productivity growth flowed to the top 1% instead of the bottom 90%.
There will soon be many people worse off, and those people aren't going to just sit there and take it. They'll blame it on immigrants and other people in general. They'll vote for authoritarians who promise to make everything better through brute force. They'll believe conspiracies about how a dividend is meant to control them and how vaccines are designed to kill them. They'll throw their metaphorical boots into the machines and push against investments in AI in fear of losing their jobs. Everything will get even messier than it already has.
I don't want us to continue going down this current path. Do you? If not, then demand your rising productivity dividend. Demand that AI literally works for all of us, including you. And with that dividend in hand as a firm and continually rising financial floor, use that freedom to figure out what you as a human should work on next thanks to AI being your servant instead of your replacement.
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