Why artists, teachers & curators will thrive in the AI revolution
The timing of the AI boom alongside the laying-off of over a million people, mostly in tech companies, feels suspect to me.
Sure, the main reasons for the Big Tech Belt Tightening seeming to be a mix of "economic uncertainty," badly placed bets, shareholder appeasement and an attempt to reassert dominance over those workers outstanding. But I find it interesting – and possibly not coincidental – that, as the media loses its mind over AI coming to take everyone’s jobs (including their own), companies are openly questioning how many humans are required to generate revenue.
And as every company becomes a software company, and AI subsequently eats their software, I can’t help but assume that the biggest platform owners (Microsoft/OpenAI, Amazon, Google, Meta, Apple) – which mostly happen to be the ones driving the development of underlying AI capabilities and frameworks – see this writing on the wall and are trimming humans they’re certain will be eventually superfluous. Why does Microsoft need all these engineers, PMs and designers, marketers and recruiters if Microsoft’s own Copilot will simply do half the work for them? Could they do with only the best half of them? Why give them benefits if they’re only doing half the work they used to do?
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In other words, the time of throwing people at technology problems is coming to an end. That means significantly less staff required to build & run tech companies, and (maybe) those staff members getting more paid.
That also likely means fewer startups with open roles – simply because “founders” won’t need dozens of coders, customer service agents, or even designers to build and scale an idea. Sure, plenty of startups (especially around AI capabilities) are hiring and attempting to exploit the spoils of big-tech layoffs, but 95% of those won’t last.
I’m including my own field of work. Product management will probably not be obsolete within the next 5-10 years (software development will go faster and more decidedly), but significant parts of the everyday will be. The whole deal with product is that you are the creative leaders in an organization, but it's becoming obvious that what works as great design is quite predictable, and the majority of PM tasks are repetitive.
Sure, tech as an industry isn’t going away, as long as people with money (VCs or not) have money to throw at problems they care about - but with millions of people out of work, seemingly for months and possibly forever without seriously considering their options, I can’t help but feel that it’s no longer viable, especially for young people, to simply assume you can work in tech. Not even high performers are safe (especially not managers), if they’ve found themselves stuck on the losing end of a political in-fight or unviable business strategy. Instead, it will be for a select few who have aligned themselves very closely and successfully with those billionaire leaders.
Leah Tharin had a great LinkedIn post a few weeks ago about the "innovation arms race" happening in product – that we’re going back to the essentials of finding value for our companies to provide, moving away from the minutia of sprints and document writing each day.
This “back to basics” will probably start happening in lots of industries:
SaaS will consolidate around a few key services requiring humans and otherwise become obsolete as AIs perform the work for executives.
Radio stations are already replacing human DJs and ad copy with AI-generated shows and ads.
Food service will need to innovate as restaurant space is more expensive to rent, and eventually AI will be good enough to know what food someone wants, orchestrate a kitchen full of robots to make it consistently to one’s liking, and deliver it quickly.
Medical doctors will be forced compete with AIs that are experts in all fields of medicine at once, drawing correlations between systems of the human body to quickly diagnose conditions any single doctor would need weeks to wrap their head around. (Note: I think this last one warrants much further explanation given the nature and cost of healthcare in the United States.)
Not all jobs in these sectors will be eliminated, but the niches best suited for humans will reduce and become increasingly focused on creation & collaboration with a mix of humans and robots. Doctors may be truly better at bedside manner and running tests because of physical properties of humans, but their specialties will matter less because an AI will be doing most of the diagnosing.
What’s becoming clear is that in a very near future, humans will differentiate from AI by their ability to (1) connect with other humans on a physical and/or spiritual level, and (2) create new ideas that are truly without precedent. Both of these are things that require a deep understanding of the human psyche, sociocultural awareness, and critical thinking skills – things bolstered by a strong liberal arts education.
The past 20 years have seen millions of smart, talented people with liberal arts degrees get swallowed up by other industry complexes (tech, real estate, construction, etc.), essentially forced to put their passions and skills they actually received a higher-ed degree in. I believe this will change – artists, teachers, curators & purveyors of ideas making money from art, teaching, curating & thinking in public, thanks to small niche audiences available anytime, anywhere.
It’s already started to happen in the past 3 years.
An aside about the post-COVID self-employment renaissance
The past few months of 2023 made a few things incredibly clear to me, separate (but again related) to the AI proliferation:
More people than ever are starting their own businesses, often on the Internet. This wasn’t new – COVID really kicked this off – but it doesn’t seem to have slowed down.
A significant portion of those businesses seem to involve teaching or sharing incredibly niche expertise via a premium product or service.
Everyone doing this has no choice to be good at sales, marketing and reputation management in order to succeed, because of the increase in visibly self-employed people. (That said: it wouldn’t surprise me if, by sometime next year, an AI product existed that did your marketing & reputation for you, continuously optimizing for audience growth.)
As AI starts to wipe out many entire fields of work and significantly cut the scope of others, I expect more and more people will explore the self-employment path simply out of necessity. (I’m doing it between trying to write this!)
The four (or five) liberal arts jobs of 2030
Every once in a while I see an article about the highest paid / most lucrative jobs of that year. I think a lot of those jobs on this year’s list will be gone by 2030.
Instead, I foresee four main “jobs” emerging (and a possible fifth) as the big ones most people will aspire to do. These are intentionally broadly defined and not prescriptive of a type of employment, but more about the essential work involved with each job. Three of them have become increasingly commonplace as the Internet has enabled cheaper, broader distribution of information, and are essentially based in a liberal arts education. They are:
Those creating the <2% of art & media not created by AIs, selling at an extremely high premium to (mostly) the higher-income classes of society, though some will likely find support in Kickstarter- and Patreon-like crowdfunding models.
What remains of Hollywood, the fiction and music industries fall into this bucket – but the majority of these artists will be selling their NIL (names, images & likenesses) as their primary sources of income and occasionally make original art.
those selling their experience as a product or service, mainly sub-niches within the arts, sales, business management and AI whispering. Coaches in particular sell at a high premium and differentiate from AI coaches used by the masses. Conventional American education is slowly dying. 11% of US children were homeschooled in 2021, a 3x increase from 2019 (mostly thanks to COVID, which also exposed myriad other problems with the public school system).
Online teachers & coaches – the influencers of the Internet selling courses around incredibly niche topics like monetizing LinkedIn, "small bets" entrepreneurship and health coaching (three topics of which my spouse and I have paid real money for courses) – will come to dominate as the way humans learn skills necessary to make a living.
I expect that, over time, younger people will seek education from these Internet-based teachers, eschewing traditional high school for learning specialized skills that matter in the midcentury economy. And why shouldn't they, given the wild success stories of the teachers and influencers all over the Internet?
Those paid to sell & recommend products and services to the masses, mostly by AI-led corporations but also a mix of human-generated products, services and content. Most of today’s “content creators” likely fall into this bucket.
But consumption will serve a critical economic function: It will not just buy the stuff that people make; it will help make that stuff better and figure out what to make more of.
Most of the stuff we consume is not necessary. More precisely, it does not provide objective value. When I buy a pair of Nikes instead of Adidas, I buy them because, subjectively, I like one pair more than the other. And when I buy hiking shoes, I do not buy them due to a technical need to go hiking but because I think they'd look cool on my walk to the coffee shop.
Curators are the people who guide on what to consume, and how to consume it.
Those attempting to game the AI systems or subvert increasingly homogenous social norms for pay (eg. Hackers, sex workers, escorts/companions, AI manipulators).
Given that our future society will likely be run by complex systems we don’t fully understand (even if there are very rich people running the businesses that own the complex systems), there will be even more incentive to try and game those systems for two reasons:
Gaming the system is inherently fun and engrossing. Just look at any fandom around a complex video game or TV/cinematic universe, even going back to the early 2000s. (Anyone still think about the show Lost? I do.) When Bing 2.0 came out, the Internet lost its mind trying to get it to transform into Sydney or Riley or Venom. When Microsoft “corrected” Bing, the fun was decidedly over.
In a world with fewer high-level occupations to choose from, many people will become desperate to stay financially afloat without the support of government-sponsored programs. And crime, or subverting the rules, can be a compelling way to find stability.
Most of the people doing the above jobs will be solopreneurs; some will have big paydays selling their winning products to the large AI-first firms to absorb into the larger AI offerings. For instance, a human teacher who develops the best course for learning how to sell an educational course on impressionist painting may sell the rights to that course to Alphabet Inc., who will integrate it into Bard v6.
5 (maybe): Maintenance
The possible fifth in-demand job is Maintenance: the people keeping the complex AI systems and platforms society uses to drift along running. I consider it possible but not likely, because I expect that other complex AI systems will exist solely to maintain the AI systems interacted with and used by humans. AIs maintaining AIs. We see rudimentary forms of this today, with continuous software integration & deployment, automated software testing, and even code writing tools like GitHub Copilot – software that can check and improve upon itself.
Other jobs that likely exist but aren’t considered as “hot” may include: scientists (who advance human knowledge forward but continue to be largely ignored by the masses outside of pointed significant discoveries), nurses / medical technicians (who largely offer bedside support and administer tests as recommended by AI), taxi drivers (because self-driving may still not be a thing by 2030).
Don’t worry, liberal arts majors — your time to shine will come soon.
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