Offshore workers – from freelance creatives to call center clerks – find that generative AI affects them in different ways. Some boosted their earnings by quickly embracing AI tools. Others worry about layoffs or increased pressure to produce more work for less pay. In this nuanced Medium article, Andrew Deck, a Rest of the World reporter, interviews experts on the interplay between technology and labor as well as far-flung workers to show how generative AI is reshaping work. He draws from a survey of more than 31,000 tech, finance and media workers. His case histories of freelancers who compare their output with and without AI illustrate most vividly this rapid transition.
- New AI tools allow many freelance creative professionals to work faster, but it may force their fees down in the long term.
- Generative AI affects how people work in formal, offshore settings – and it may lead to layoffs.
- Researchers are skeptical of the idea that AI will eliminate the need for human workers.
New AI tools allow many freelance creative professionals to work faster, but it may force their fees down in the long term.
Outsourcing labor to offshore workforces is nothing new in the Western world. The rise of gig work platforms like Fiverr, 99designs and Upwork has expanded the opportunities for businesses and individuals to contract online for professional work often less expensively than hiring someone in the United States or the United Kingdom. While online freelancers and data workers earn more than they would from local clients, they must pay assignment platforms for access to bid on available work. They find low paying tasks, called “click work,” on such sites as Microworkers, Remotasks and Amazon Mechanical Turk.
“Freelancers on online gig work platforms…may not fit the conventional mold of outsourcing, but they largely map onto the same flows of work: clients in the Global North hiring workers in the Global South.”
Fiverr reports a 1,400% increase in searches for AI-related jobs from the mid-2022 to January 2023. Artists, writers, digital marketers, IT specialists and more are rushing to take advantage of this spike in interest. Many report that AI has allowed them to do more work for more clients far faster than before – meaning they can earn more even if they must lower their fees.
However, many freelance creatives are concerned that the benefits of the shift to AI are temporary. They worry that when savvy amateurs can use AI tools to produce “expert” work, the results devalue human skill. Ultimately, professionals may feel forced to cut their rates to untenable levels to try to remain competitive.
Generative AI affects how people work in formal, offshore settings – and it may lead to layoffs.
New AI tools are also changing the daily work lives of offshore workers in more formal employment situations, like call centers. Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University found that generative AI is increasing the productivity of call center workers in the Philippines from 14% to 35%.
That’s good news for employers, but experts note that the “threat of automation” can undercut workers’ sense of job security and well-being – making them afraid to take sick days or ask for fair pay, lest they be replaced by a machine that requires neither.
“Online gig workers may be at the forefront of generative AI adoption and displacement, but there are clear signs that AI is also quickly coming for the more traditional outsourcing industry.”
These workers are wise to be wary: Teleperformance, one of the world’s largest business processing outsourcing (BPO) companies, recently told its investors that it expects that scripted AI will handle between 20% and 30% of its call volume by 2026, though it insists “human empathy” will still be important in handling complicated calls. Those working in the lowest rungs of the BPO apparatus are most at risk that AI will render them redundant. In the Philippines, more than half of the employees in those least-skilled roles are women.
Researchers are skeptical of the idea that AI will eliminate the need for human workers.
While the threat of displacement is very real, experts in labor and technology largely agree that AI is unlikely to eliminate the need for human workers. They expect, instead, that AI will transform and augment human work. For instance, Rafael Grohmann, a main investigator at Fairwork Brazil, an AI and digital labor research project, says that instead of displacing people, AI may boost the need for “quality data workers, more…training and annotating data,” and may lead to more work on “micro projects.” The very work of developing and training generative AI requires human employees, including offshore staff.
“Since the blockbuster launch of ChatGPT at the end of 2022, future-of-work pontificators, AI ethicists and Silicon Valley developers have been fiercely debating how generative AI will impact the way we work. Some six months later, one global labor force is at the frontline of the generative AI revolution: offshore outsourced workers.”
Experts also note that even the presence of AI tools with excellent capabilities doesn’t mean everyone will know – or will learn quickly – how to use them effectively. Technology displaced Mexican journalist Rafael Rodríguez Deustúa from his journalism career. Now an illustrator, he is less worried about AI. He notes that his illustration clients often don’t have a firm grasp on what they want in a design, much less the ability to explain it to a machine in a way that would generate the desired results. For such reasons, he says, “I bet on humans.”
About the Author
Andrew Deck is a reporter at Rest of World covering digital culture and subcultures with a focus on global social media platforms. This column appeared on Medium.