Artificial Intelligence Cannot Beat Critical Thinking

Analysis

Balázs Vinnai, president of the IT Association of Hungary (IVSz).

Occasionally, Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán makes statements that fuel heated discussions in the public space. The latest was presented on April 24 at the opening event of the 17th Star of the Technical Profession Festival (Szakmasztár)in Budapest. About 15-20 years ago, Orbán recalled, it was generally accepted that university graduate professionals in intellectual jobs would shape the future of Hungary. But today, the technical workers and craftspeople are the backbone of the Hungarian economy, the prime minister insisted.

He continued that, at the dawn of the computer age, many feared that new technologies would replace physical work. It turned out that they could not. But now, Orbán said, “office workers, lawyers, clerks and programmers are quaking in their boots.”

The prime minister did not elaborate on the idea. Still, many interpreted his words as suggesting that he considers these professions to be becoming rapidly obsolete, unlike plumbers, masons, carpenters, or auto mechanics, who will always be needed in the Hungarian economy or that of any other country.

Indeed, with the rise of ChatGPT, the artificial intelligence-based search tool capable of giving instant and coherently phrased (if not always accurate) information on any topic, fears are rising that AI will soon be able to replace several professions.

But the reality is much more complex than such narrow thinking allows for, says Balázs Vinnai, the president of the IT Association of Hungary (IVSz). Speaking at a recent roundtable discussion, Vinnai approached the issue of the future of programming and the IT labor force market from the point of view of digital skills.

Even today, digital skills are linked in the public perception to programming. Those with digital skills are automatically labeled as programmers and vice versa, only programmers need digital skills. These perceptions are rooted in the context of 25 years ago when programming mathematicians was a profession, Vinnai said.

But, as with all professions, this has changed, and today, programming sits on an extremely broad spectrum. Meanwhile, the skill threshold necessary for entering the world of programming has continuously lowered, and the knowledge needed is simpler and more accessible today, Vinnai noted.

AI is not New

Returning to the “AI replaces jobs” theme, we need to consider what AI is and what jobs are. Artificial intelligence has been around for much longer than many may think: specialists at IBM have been researching the technology for 25-30 years. However (and despite inspiring a 2001 Steven Spielberg film: “A.I. Artificial Intelligence”), it has become truly visible only relatively recently, with the spectacular rise of ChatGPT.

So, has AI replaced any job in the last 25 years to the extent that we should worry that it will happen now on a large scale? No, albeit many processes in the global economy are now automated, and physical jobs are not so, well, physical anymore but are assisted by machines.

It is also true that many professions have become much more specialized. There are very few general economists or lawyers; these professions, and others, are now much more segmented: a lawyer specializing in the labor market will not easily be able to deal with divorces.

On the other hand, not all technology changes have induced dramatic changes in the labor market. At the dawn of the industrial era, production shifted from steam-based to electrical machines. And during this process, we did not see droves of unemployed workers retraining as electrical engineers.

If we want to see the future realistically, we need to consider the theory elaborated by futurist Roy Charles Amara, Vinnai says. His law says: “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.”

A good example is the internet. When it started, few were using it, but lots talked about it. Many were expecting the majority of retail to become digital within a couple of years. When this did not happen, disappointment followed, and the dot.com bubble burst in 2001. Later, when Amazon became the largest store in the world in 2010, nobody seemed to notice; we all somehow took it for granted.

The Digital Divide

Similarly, Vinnai says, there will be changes wrought by AI, but not within a one-to-three-year span, but in the much longer term, 10-30 years.

Before AI kicks in, there is another issue that should be addressed, Vinnai adds. The Hungarian society is experiencing a skill gap in terms of digital competencies. Some have these, others do not. And the differences are significant in incomes, resilience to market changes, and quality of life. Narrowing this gap is a social, political and economic responsibility.

The situation is similar to where literacy was after World War I. Back then, it was very low, at around just 10% of the population of Europe. In 30 years, the rate had been raised to 40%, leading to a surge in productivity. What was laid in that time was the foundation of the wealth of Europe as we know it today. Something similar should be done to broaden the development of digital skills today, Vinnai says.

Programming has undergone an enormous transformation. Most programmers today do not even work at tech companies. Banks like OTP employ many more IT professionals than most tech companies in Hungary. Digitalization has swept across all areas of the economy, and all companies need programmers, albeit with different degrees of competence.

However, those who acquire digital skills will face the AI era much more resiliently than those who do not. Plus, there is still one area where AI cannot compete: soft skills. Communication, cooperation, and critical thinking will become ever more valuable. So-called “human thinking” cannot be replicated and will become increasingly valuable in the labor market, Vinnai concluded.

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of May 6, 2024.

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