Sydney Opera House at night illuminated with many colours

My main insight from SXSW Sydney

Last week, I attended the inaugural SXSW Sydney, and the first SXSW outside of Texas. It was different to the regular tech conferences that I’ve attended – it was much more diverse, with the games/film/music streams attracting a broader crowd. The sessions that I made it into were stimulating and sparked a range of ideas.

Of course, topics like AI (particularly Generative AI) and the Future of Work featured heavily in many presentations, and this led me to a realisation that I hadn’t had before, and I feel is likely to be the biggest impact from GenAI in the medium term. Rather than keep it to myself, I am sharing it here so that I can hear from others if it makes sense to them also.

Specifically, GenAI will bring about a huge disruption to the professional workforce and education system, not necessarily because humans will be replaced, but because humans who have been excluded from participation will now have fewer barriers to entry. Proficiency in the English language has been used as a justification for keeping certain people out of certain fields, and GenAI allows anyone from a non-English background to be as creative, smart, and persuasive as they are in their native tongues.

Our current GenAI systems are largely based on the Transformer machine learning architecture, which showed up early in online language translation tools like Google Translate. However, the GPT (T stands for Transformer) systems, particularly ChatGPT, have shown us that only a few words in broken English are able to be turned into paragraphs of words in perfect English, or even the reverse where paragraphs are summarised down to a few points in another language. University-level English spelling, grammar, and comprehension are no longer the exclusive domain of the English fluent.

There’s a fun TV series called Kim’s Convenience about a Korean couple who move to Canada to raise their family. The couple were teachers in Korea, but instead of doing that, they open a convenience store in Toronto. Presumably their lack of English or French language fluency would have been a limitation in getting teaching jobs. However, less than two months ago, OpenAI published their guide for teachers around ChatGPT, and it included the use case of “Reducing friction for non-English speakers”. In this guide, it was to help non-English students, but many of the suggestions could help non-English teachers also.

About 6% of the world’s population are native English speakers, and 75% do not speak English at all. And yet, about a third of the world’s GDP comes from countries where English fluency is required for success. If English is no longer a barrier to success in that market, it will be a significant disruption.

The spread of remote working technologies due to the pandemic has changed the ways of working for many jobs. Many white-collar jobs will likely still have an element of face-to-face contact, even if to come together for celebrations or training. However, where workers can be fully remote, the lack of English fluency as a barrier will enable many countries to export their talent without it leaving their shores.

Before the pandemic hit, over a quarter of University revenues in Australia came from international students. This gives international students some influence over University policies, and currently they face English language proficiency tests as part of their enrolment and visa processes. In the near future, GenAI looks set to be considered a generally-available tool in the workplace, like a calculator or laptop. If prospective students could make use of such a tool to address any gaps in their English language skills post-graduation, is it fair to prevent them from using it before graduation?

Traditionally, those people who had limited English in countries like Australia, UK or USA had been resigned to taking a jobs as an “unskilled” worker. There are already concerns that the number of people willing to do this type of work might not be enough to meet future industry demands. What might happen to wages if a good proportion of these people were able to move out of the unskilled workforce? How readily can the creative and information worker industries expand to take on new talent? What new barriers might be created by unions and professional organisations to help limit a flood of new workers into their industries?

GenAI has been making headlines that AI is taking many people’s creative jobs. After hearing from several panels at SXSW on AI, Long-term Forecasting, Work of the Future, and Education, my conclusion is that a plausible and perhaps more relevant headline would be that GenAI will allow many more people to take on creative jobs.

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