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Generative AI and the rise of ‘AI-nxiety’
Thu, 14th Mar 2024

When the first generative AI programs started producing code, many within the technology world were – understandably - a little nervous about what this might mean for their jobs, not least as the tools continue to develop and mature. This ‘AI-nxiety’ is of course, not exclusive to IT – but nonetheless, foreboding predictions about the state of our industry in the not-too-distant future have hit the headlines in recent months and caused considerable concern.

But should we as IT professionals really be worried – or, as the optimist in me is inclined to say – is generative AI actually a great opportunity for IT leaders to drive our field and our businesses forward?

Debunking the misconceptions around GenAI

There’s a quote often attributed to Socrates that says, “I know only one thing: that I know nothing.” This quote can speak to many of the misconceptions around AI at the moment. We are barely scratching the surface of real-life applications of gen-AI technology. We know very little. Yes, some generative models are spookily accurate in their responses to both general and specific inputs, but can they really replace skilled humans? Definitely not right now.

Most of us are familiar with the adage of the tractor and the farmer. The invention of the tractor didn’t replace the farmer; farmers just learnt to drive tractors. The wisdom gained over centuries of craft and over decades for each farmer was enhanced by the abilities that tractors provided. With that in mind, AI won’t replace the IT department, rather we will learn to be drivers of AI. To take the analogy a bit further, most tractors are guided by GPS today which farmers use to ensure they are as efficient and as optimised as possible. It’s this continued cycle of innovation, augmenting our job roles and making our lives easier and more efficient, that we can expect to see with AI.

On the other hand, when we try and predict the AI space five or ten years down the line, we really don’t know enough to accurately predict its applications. Yes, it will address problems we know about now, but what about the potential applications we don’t know about? Going further, what if generative models can suggest solutions to problems we haven’t even identified, even though they are in our midst?

So, should we be worried about the future? Well, as IT professionals we are in a unique position to lead from the front – to partner with AI in individual contexts and guide its utilisation and further development in business and beyond. The decisions we make and the problems we solve will define the AI space in the future.

IT and AI - a partnership

I remember when I first fell in love with technology. I’d always wanted to help the world be a better place, and from an early age, I thought that this would mean going into medicine. But in the course of my university studies, I just kept taking more and more maths classes and found myself drawn towards pure mathematics. My father, ever the pragmatist, encouraged me not to confuse my vocation with my avocation, and I fulfilled the requirements for a computer science minor (this was the late 90s, and both Y2K and the dot.com boom were overwhelming at the time). I soon discovered the ability of data analytics and technology to directly impact people’s quality of life and how digital technology, in particular, was foundational to how the global economy operates. Since then, I’ve been trying to work as closely as I can on those really hard problems that have a meaningful impact on the world.

The role of the IT professional is often multifaceted and varied, but ultimately, one characteristic that ties us all together is our ability to solve problems. We're always looking at the people, processes, and technology to address issues, support progress, and grow the business.

Now that we are working with gen-AI, the ability of IT to solve problems for the business, for our co-workers and for customers has never been greater. As such, gen-AI signifies a shift in the perception of IT professionals from technology stewards to stewards of positive change.

With a simple prompt, an IT pro can fix long-standing business problems more quickly and easily than ever, whether that means pulling data for a board meeting where critical decisions will be made or instantly or knitting applications together to enable the delivery of new products and services. If being a data-oriented problem solver was a skill before, AI has made it a superpower.

IT leads the way

In the longer term, though, the impact of gen-AI on the IT person will likely be one of evolution rather than replacement. I believe that gen-AI is, in many ways, simultaneously the most underhyped and overhyped technology today. Why? Unfortunately, there is a widespread lack of concrete factual knowledge about how these systems operate and will operate within the broader media and tech community. This has resulted in unfounded speculation and catastrophizing that is unhelpful and damaging to the potential of these technologies. 

The reality is that the way that AI and machine learning function is so different from the core technologies that most people are used to that there's a lot of unfounded hyperbole rooted in misunderstanding.

IT staff are on the frontlines of what is undoubtedly a technological revolution and it’s our job to steer the ship, guide our businesses and our colleagues and solve difficult problems for our customers.

For that reason, I urge IT colleagues to treat generative AI like a potential partner, not a competitor and not to be worried about a dystopian future or swayed by the hyperbole. IT teams are competing among other business units to lead generative AI initiatives, and there is an opportunity like never before for IT teams to deliver on the promise of information and imagination at work, supported by and delivered by digital technology.