Oct 11, 2023 - Technology

AI is better at handling tough tasks than doing entire jobs

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Illustration of two hand cursors holding jigsaw puzzle pieces.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Instead of viewing AI as a wholesale substitute for human workers and tasks, smart organizations and products are putting it to work in narrower niches.

Why it matters: AI is still far from being able to take over soup-to-nuts projects like writing entire articles or performing whole movie roles, but it can effectively shoulder painful but necessary tasks that people find tough or tedious.

"These tools are incredibly powerful, and they can do a lot of things, but they cannot do everything," Microsoft VP Eric Boyd told Axios.

  • Stanford professor Erik Brynjolfsson said in January that he and his colleagues broke out the tasks required in 950 occupations. AI could handle many of the functions, but not all: "We did not find a single one where machine learning ran the table and could do all of them."

What's happening: The talk in Hollywood, particularly in this year's heated labor discussions, has been over whether the use of AI could put writers and actors out of jobs.

  • But, there are ways that the technology can be put to use today to allow movies and TV shows to be more accessible and interactive.

PBS has been testing whether AI could help it create interactive TV shows for children. Historically, its educational shows have often paused to allow a child to answer, but AI might allow for two-way interaction.

  • PBS is using technology not to craft the dialogue, but rather to help with the challenging task of decoding the less-than-clear-speech of toddlers.
  • Sara DeWitt, senior VP of PBS KIDS, said it would be far too risky today to allow AI to generate the words to be spoken by its characters. "We're using our script writers. That's really clear to us," DeWitt told Axios.
  • The interactive TV effort is still in the research phase, but PBS has a grant from the National Science Foundation to transition into production use by 2025.

Between the lines: Those who use AI to write whole articles have seen mediocre results and some embarrassing flops at CNET, G/O Media and the Columbus Dispatch. Quietly though, newsrooms have found AI to be adept at more narrow tasks, such as writing headlines or captions.

  • Reuters is exploring whether AI can help devise headlines that get more attention from aggregators and search engines.
  • Other news organizations are experimenting to see if AI can help with tasks ranging from caption-writing to detecting bias.

Even clergy are turning to ChatGPT. One Texas pastor found out the hard way that ChatGPT really isn't up to creating an entire worship service, while others have found even chatbot-generated sermons to be missing that divine inspiration.

  • "It lacks a soul — I don't know how else to say it," Kentucky-based pastor and theology professor Hershael York told the Associated Press.
  • By contrast, Rabbi Daniel Bogard says he has found generative AI "useful for finding sources, for thinking about different connections, and for sorting through huge amounts of text."

Be smart: Boyd, who leads Microsoft's AI platform work, said he spends a lot of his time educating customers on the types of tasks that the technology is ready to take on today. The technology is good at drafting computer code, summarizing text and finding patterns in large amounts of data and presenting that back for humans to take action.

  • "We really believe that AI is built for people and to make them more productive in the work that they're doing," Boyd said.

Yes, but: Even where AI is only capable of playing a supporting role today, the rapid pace of improvement suggests the technology might be ready to play a bigger part sooner than later.

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