Robots Are Coming for White-Collar Workers, Too

In previous industrial revolutions, machines took over manual labor jobs, then repetitive assembly line work and analog office drudgery. Now they’re coming for “cognitive” work.

A robot plays piano at a restaurant on December 28, 2022 in Hangzhou, China. (Long Wei / VCG via Getty Images)

Elon Musk is right about one thing: OpenAI’s new chatbot prototype is “scary good.” How good is that? Consider this short excerpt from “Robots and Revolution,” a song I asked ChatGPT to create:

Some socialists say that AI could be a threat

To workers’ livelihoods, and the profits that they get

They argue that the profits from AI should be shared

And that the government should help those who are impaired


But others say that AI could be a force for good

It could reduce the need for labor, like it should

It could create a society where we’re free from wage labor

Where we can pursue our passions, without any favor

No, it’s not a work of particular genius. I’d grade “Robots and Revolution” a C-, with low marks for the clunky lyrical flow and lack of humor. On the other hand, this three-verse, one-chorus ditty was spat out in about thirty seconds and did a reasonable job summarizing arguments about AI in basic rhyme form. Plus, this just scratches the surface of the capabilities of the browser-based word genie. Since OpenAI released ChatGPT to the public in November, people have used it to write college-level essays, punch up their scripts’ dialogue, craft recipes for dinner, and write software code.

I decided to turn “Robots and Revolution” into a music video project, so I spent a few hours utilizing other AI tools to do so myself as a novice. I signed up for a voice app (Murf) to provide vocals, Midjourney for computer-generated visuals, Amper Music to make a moody soundtrack, and Canva to help edit and produce it. I hesitate to call the result my music video because I didn’t make it as much as curate it, letting the AI do the rest. Doing so saved me the hefty labor cost of paying working artists, musicians, engineers, and graphic designers.

Likewise, some commercial websites have begun employing AI artists instead of illustrators, and content creators increasingly use algorithm-generated music to avoid directly paying artists or royalty fees.

It’s all the more fuel for the speculation that the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution is already upon us. Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, has described the Fourth Industrial Revolution as “a fusion of technologies blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.” It’s the convergence of AI, machine learning, advanced robotics, and biotech.

In previous industrial revolutions, machines took over many manual labor jobs, then repetitive assembly line work and analog office drudgery. Now they’re coming for higher-level “cognitive” work. A 2013 study from Oxford University suggested that nearly half of today’s professions could be eliminated by automation over the next generation, including many white-collar and skilled blue-collar jobs.

​​Kai-Fu Lee, AI expert and CEO of Sinovation Ventures, wrote a 2018 essay that speculated that 50 percent of jobs would be automated within a decade and a half. “Accountants, factory workers, truckers, paralegals, and radiologists — just to name a few — will be confronted by a disruption akin to that faced by farmers during the Industrial Revolution,” wrote Lee.

“Clearly AI is going to win,” Nobel Prize–winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman noted in 2021. “How people adjust is a fascinating problem.”

That adjustment disproportionately harms most workers.

Labor-saving technology is not inherently wrong. What’s troublesome is the process in which it gets integrated into the capitalist system. In Capital, Karl Marx explained how the replacement of labor with automation is a tool used by capital to weaken labor and enrich itself without regard for workers’ standard of living or the needs of society. “The instrument of labour, when it takes the form of a machine, immediately becomes a competitor to the worker himself,” Marx wrote.

That competition puts further downward pressure on wages on a mass of unskilled labor, an “artificial surplus population” of the unemployed. Marx called automation “the most powerful weapon for suppressing strikes, those periodic revolts of the working class against the autocracy of capital.” As a result, inequality grows.

Capitalist apologists are wrong when they say that while new tech might displace workers in the short term, it should eventually liberate workers from mindless drudgery and allow them to work in more advanced sectors. (That’s the argument ChatGPT broached in the second verse of “Robots and Revolution.”) If that were the case, why do so many workers of the present endure long hours, low pay, and hate their jobs despite all the productivity gains from advances in electricity, computing, robotics, and other tech over the last two centuries?

If history tells us anything, it’s that without working-class organization, capital comes out on top.

It’s not all bad news. Shiny new AI tools like Open GPT aren’t yet good enough in 2023 to replace, say, Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar with singing and rapping robots. But we should heed the first verse of “Robots and Revolution” and seriously consider the medium and long-term future of those of us employed in art, music, writing, coding, and other fields primed for AI disruption.