AI + Jobs

AI is taking jobs in New Zealand. Just last week, we saw Spark publicly announce it will use AI to save millions of dollars in the next year. Spark is one of the first big tech companies to admit to replacing jobs with AI, but it certainly won’t be the last – and many more companies will be doing it quietly.

How big of a problem is this? Well, that’s part of the issue – we don’t know the scale or speed of these changes. IBM faced widespread public backlash in 2023 for implementing a hiring freeze on thousands of roles that it could replace with AI. Companies are naturally reluctant to advertise AI-related layoffs, instead using phrases such as “technological advances” or “streamlining processes”. I hear many anecdotes from people who have lost their jobs or are aware of looming AI-induced restructures, but what we really need is hard numbers.

Ironically, the tech sector has been hit hard – programming and data analytics roles have become much more efficient through tools such as Microsoft’s Copilot. The marketing sector is also very fragile. While humans are still better marketers, if you can get something 80% as good from ChatGPT at a fraction of the price, you only need to keep a few marketing experts to revise and validate what the AI produces.

It can be easy to brush off these concerns by saying that these tools will free up people for more fulfilling and productive roles. Usually, this argument is made based on the Industrial Revolution, where workers moved from predominantly agricultural jobs into high-efficiency factory work. It’s a nice analogy, but I don’t buy it. The velocity of the “AI revolution” is so much faster – it took many decades to build factories, whereas ChatGPT has digitally swept across the world in under two years. Retraining people takes time and money, neither of which we have the social systems to support, given the potential scale and speed of AI-induced changes.

It’s also not clear that AI is taking away “mundane” or “bad” jobs. Before the Industrial Revolution, agricultural work was hard and time-consuming labour. Today, jobs such as programming and marketing are sought-after and personally fulfilling. I still remember the joy of solving my first programming problem – if I had ended up in software engineering, I’d be angry right now that my vocation was being replaced by an AI model.

So, what do we do? The Industrial Revolution gave us the so-called “social question” of how to manage technologically-induced inequality and the distribution of wealth. This led to the formation of trade unions and eventual improvements in workers’ rights. If AI-induced unemployment continues to rise, we may see a similar push away from neoliberalism and the focus on economic growth towards other social structures.

Whatever happens, we need strong political leadership to navigate these changes. Before the 2023 Election, I critiqued all our political parties for having no AI policy. Nothing has changed. The Coalition Government has shown no leadership on these issues. The Minister responsible, Judith Collins, seems out of her depth and unaware of how AI works. A couple of weeks ago, she was quoted as wanting to use it to help write Cabinet papers even though AI is often unreliable, biased, and not developed for our unique New Zealand context. She has also effectively ruled out any new regulation despite the examples of harm we’re seeing overseas beyond job losses, such as deepfakes and new, sophisticated phishing attacks.

The Opposition isn’t doing much better. The Left, traditional stalwarts of worker’s rights, have no AI policy nor seem to be publicly raising these issues. There is one record in Parliament’s Hansard of an opposition MP, Dr Ayesha Verrall (Labour), mentioning AI – but only to state that she saw it being promoted on her previous ministerial trip to Singapore.

I want to see our politicians taking this seriously. We need the statistics to understand the scale of how AI is impacting our workforce. We need to have support in place for people to re-train if they cannot find work in their area because of AI. We also need to have a wider conversation – as a society – about how we use this technology in a positive way. Work provides a sense of purpose for many, even if the employee can be “replaced”. Ignoring AI is no longer an option; it’s time for strong leadership that ensures AI serves the broader good, not just corporate bottom lines.