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Why Ignorance is Not Bliss: AI's Implications on HR

My favorite writer is Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut’s storytelling style is unique. He uses science fiction, satire, and humor to convey deep concern for both the human condition and his flawed characters. He grapples with existential questions such as the meaning of life and free will while exploring social, political, and cultural issues.

I was reminded of Vonnegut’s first novel when, on November 30, 2022, ChatGPT, a large language model form of artificial intelligence (AI), was launched as a prototype. It has been trained on enormous amounts of text data and can understand natural language and produce human-like responses to inputs. The reaction to it over the past four months has been wide ranging from the possibility of its destruction of humanity to its potential to create a utopian world.

I have been surprised by how many people have told me that they had not even heard of ChatGPT. Permit me to parrot what Vonnegut might have said.

Imagine that.

“We know the key Promethean eras of the last 600 years: the invention of the printing press, the scientific revolution, the agricultural revolution combined with the industrial revolution, the nuclear power revolution, personal computing and the internet and … now this moment.”

- Thomas Friedman, March 21, 2023[1]

“The long-term importance of generative AI transcends commercial implications or even noncommercial scientific breakthroughs. It is not only generating answers; it is generating philosophically profound questions.”

- Henry Kissinger, Eric Schmidt, and Daniel Huttenlocher, February 23, 2023, Wall Street Journal[2]

“Of course AI’s development should be paused, of course there should be a moratorium, but six months won’t be enough. Pause it for a few years. Call in the world’s counsel, get everyone in. Heck, hold a World Congress. But slow this thing down. We are playing with the hottest thing since the discovery of fire.”

- Peggy Noonan, March 30, 2023, Wall Street Journal[3]

“The people building artificial general intelligence today don’t need media mythmaking to inflate their ego; they already clearly believe in the humanity-altering potential of their invention. But it is a complex thing, playing at Prometheus. They have stolen from the realm of knowledge something very powerful and equally strange. I think this technology will expand our minds. And I think it will burn us.”

- Derek Thompson, March 21, 2023, The Atlantic[4]

“We know the key Promethean eras of the last 600 years: the invention of the printing press, the scientific revolution, the agricultural revolution combined with the industrial revolution, the nuclear power revolution, personal computing and the internet and … now this moment.”

If the quotes above don’t get your attention, I’m not sure what will.

I have been exploring ChatGPT to assess its utility for my own personal and professional use. I have also been reading articles about it and thinking about what it may mean for society, education, organizations, and HR.

I am convinced that HR must begin to understand this new technology and how it will not only alter work processes in HR, but how it will fundamentally change the nature of work and our society. Many books and movies have sought to explore what the advance of AI might look like and how it might affect us, including one by my favorite author.

Kurt Vonnegut’s first book, Player Piano, written over seventy years ago in 1952, is a dystopian novel set in a future where machines and computers have replaced most human labor, leaving many people without work or purpose. The story follows Dr. Paul Proteus, a successful engineer and manager in this machine-dominated society, who becomes disillusioned with the dehumanizing effects of the technology he helped create. It raises questions about the effects of automation on society and the human condition, and questions whether the new automation might lead to a loss of purpose and meaning for many people and exacerbate existing societal inequalities.

Player Piano is a cautionary tale about the potential dangers of advanced automation and artificial intelligence. It highlights the importance of considering the social and ethical implications of technological progress, and of ensuring that technology is used in a way that benefits all members of society.

With the introduction of ChatGPT to the public and considering the likely exponential improvements that are on the horizon, it is important that we consider the critical questions raised by Vonnegut and others regarding the impact that AI will have and how we might control it so that its use, to a point made by Thomas Friedman, is more as a beneficial tool rather than as a dangerous weapon.

What would Vonnegut say about ChatGPT were he still alive?

I decided to ask ChatGPT-4.

Here’s what I queried, “Given Kurt Vonnegut's writings on automation and its impact on the meaning and purpose of work, can you provide a likely response he would have about ChatGPT-4?”

After cautioning me that it can't speak directly for Kurt Vonnegut, it said it can attempt to provide a response that he might have given based on his writings and thoughts on automation and the meaning of work. It further warned me to keep in mind that this is speculative and not an actual quote from Vonnegut himself.

"Dear friends, here we are now, witnessing the remarkable creation of ChatGPT-4, an artificial intelligence that can communicate with us almost as effectively as our fellow human beings. This technological marvel reminds me of the automation I wrote about in 'Player Piano,' where machines had taken over the work of men and women, leaving them devoid of purpose and fulfillment.

The arrival of ChatGPT-4 raises important questions about our relationship with work, purpose, and human connection. While this AI may be a helpful tool for answering questions or engaging in conversation, it's crucial that we don't forget the value of human interaction and empathy.

As we embrace the advances of artificial intelligence, we must also reexamine the meaning of work, and explore how we can create a society that offers purpose beyond labor. Perhaps this is an opportunity for us to rediscover the arts, education, and community building, all of which contribute to the enrichment of the human experience.

We must remember that, while technology has the power to change our lives for the better, it is our responsibility to ensure that it serves humanity, rather than supplanting it. Let us use these advances to enrich our lives and the lives of those around us, rather than allowing them to dictate our purpose and identity. So it goes."

ChatGPT-4’s response is not only impressive, it sounds like good advice!


Gerry Brandon, Ph.D, SHRM-SCP, SPHR, is the Director of Graduate Programs in Human Resource Development at Villanova. Connect with him on LinkedIn!


[1] [2] [3] [4]


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