There's considerable concern about the prospects of AI putting people out of a work across a variety of knowledge work roles, especially software engineering. These concerns seem to have baked in assumptions that are too narrow, and if explored a bit more fully, shift the perspective.

The underlying assumptions appear to be:

  • That the job replacement will be something akin to offshoring. Where an AI agent will perform essentially the same engineering work in the same timeframe as a person, at a fraction of the cost. Cheap labor, but otherwise business as usual.
  • That an AI agent capable of software engineering wouldn't also imply a level of intelligence and sophistication that would be extremely broadly applicable. An assumption, that and AI agent can be a really good software engineer but nothing else.

If you accept the premise that an AI agent is now or soon will be capable of replacing a software engineer, these assumptions seem naïve. However I do agree that software engineering is ground zero for evaluating how impactful this stage of AI will be.

What's at stake:

  • If AI is capable of replacing a software engineer, it's very unlikely to end up with a one-for-one trade. Where one AI agent is 'hired' to take over a 40 hour a week job.
  • If we have one capable AI agent, we essentially have infinite agents available to work 24x7.
  • Having access to nearly infinite software engineering capacity would lead to an explosion of software being written and modified at an accelerating pace.
  • The types of software being writing would change. The more AI agents replace knowledge workers, the less business software for humans would be written, and more for other AI's.
  • Therefore, if ChatGPT and the like are able to replace software engineers the situation is more akin to the singularity than offshoring 2.0.

That suggests to me that we're vastly underestimating the change that's about to occur, or we are overhyping the capabilities of this generation of AI. I think it's more likely the latter.

If instead of knowledge worker capable replacements, these AI agents are more powerful tools to enhance the productivity of the existing workers, we're more likely to experience Jevon's Paradox than mass displacement.


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