The Real-World Impact of Generative AI on Business

The Real-World Impact of Generative AI on Business

Upwork research shows that business leaders are split on the exact impact generative AI, also known as GenAI, will have on job disruption. 42% say that the technology is primarily an augmentation tool, while 58% say they view generative AI as an automation tool.

While opinions differ, there's no argument that AI will change the ways people work. A full 90% of business leaders globally plan to increase their workforce in the next 12 months as a result of generative AI. And 54% agree that the technology can do more than speed up repetitive tasks—it can help teams truly innovate.

Whether you fall into the augmentation or the automation camp, you’ll want to embrace AI as a way to work differently. If you don’t, you may find your business losing its competitive advantage as the technology continues to advance.

Finding our place amid waves of change

Business changes related to AI won't happen overnight. Technological change happens in waves.

But when there's a technological breakthrough that happens on a very public scale—like the public release of OpenAI’s ChatGPT in November 2022—the wave can feel like a tsunami.

Many people can be caught off-guard by massive upheavals to the status quo, and this can create a feeling of resistance to something like a brand-new technology. But history shows us that leaders who embrace change see the rewards that times of upheaval can bring.

Looking to history as an example

The way in which we cool our perishable food is a good example of change occurring in waves.

In the first wave, we saw the commercialization of ice production. Homes and apartments were furnished with iceboxes, and ice delivery companies began bringing large blocks of ice to homes.

The second wave came with the invention of refrigeration in the 1800s. When electric refrigerators first hit the market, it may have been understandably concerning to some ice delivery companies—would they be put out of business? After all, more homes with refrigerators would mean less of a demand for ice delivery.

Early home refrigerators were extremely expensive, though, and very few people could afford them. This created a decades-long transition period where people still relied on iceboxes. Eventually, though, refrigerators became more affordable—and in this third wave, home refrigeration was commonplace. But because this change didn’t happen overnight, home ice entrepreneurs had a chance to evaluate the market and potentially pivot to making other ice products, or even getting into the refrigerator sales and service business.

Even the invention of brewed coffee created pushback from clergy and community leaders who were wary of the effects it could have on the body. As brewed coffee spread across the world in waves—from Ethiopia to Yemen, Egypt, and later Europe—it was routinely met with curiosity, resistance, and ultimately broad acceptance in location after location. And as coffee grew in popularity, it created opportunities for new business, from farms and roasteries to coffee shops.

If you tried to tell many people they had to live without coffee and a refrigerator today, it wouldn't go over well. These are two now-common things that make many people’s lives easier and more comfortable.

AI is no different. While the advent of generative AI feels sudden, engineers have been working on the technology since 1960, when a computer scientist at MIT created the first AI chatbot (called ELIZA). ELIZA was an early version of the large language models (LLMs) that still form the backbone of AI models Chat GPT-4 today.

After the creation of ELIZA, generative AI went through several waves of change, becoming more complex and capable with each passing decade.

In the 1970s, Marvin Minsky—founder of the MIT AI Lab—said that he expected generative AI to reach a level of average human intelligence within three to eight years. We're still having those same conversations today, more than 40 years later.

And we can reasonably expect that this technology will one day feel as common and ubiquitous as your morning coffee—and the fridge you pull your creamer from.

Recognizing the evolution of human capabilities

We aren’t quite there yet, though. While generative AI is far more advanced now than when Minsky made his prediction, the technology is not about to replace people.

But the world is at a point where it can fundamentally change how work gets done. AI is now more readily accessible to everyone, and advances in computer science have made AI a force multiplier in nearly every industry. Users no longer need to be in an MIT computer science lag to experience the power of AI first hand—all they need is a modest home computer and a decent internet connection.  You no longer need to be at MIT to experience the power of generative AI first hand.

This is because the development of new technology, from refrigerators to AI-powered software, creates more work opportunities than it removes. Society evolves, innovates, and discovers new ways of working with new technology.

Think back to those home ice delivery companies—while you may not have ice delivered to your home now, chances are you might pick up a bag of commercially prepared ice cubes when getting ready for a picnic or party. Ice companies still exist, just not in the same way they did 150 years ago.

In the case of AI, these new opportunities focus on more complex tasks, creativity, and strategic thinking. Many talented independent professionals are already seeing the benefits of generative AI in their workflows—and on their contracts.

Gen AI's Impact on Work

Balancing human and AI skill sets

As managing director of the Upwork Research Institute, I'm part of a team that's uniquely positioned to see generative AI's impact on work.

By looking at changes in the way clients and talent use our platform, my team in partnership with our Analytics team can begin to see what kind of impact AI may be having on different industries and roles.

My team studies this data and compares it to projections around the number of contracts on Upwork—and overall talent earnings—that may have occurred if ChatGPT hadn't launched in 2022.

Interestingly, our data shows that the advent of generative AI models has increased both the total number of job posts made on Upwork and talent earnings per new contract created. This means that clients are more interested in working with independent talent than ever—and they're paying a premium to do so.

However, we're seeing most of this positive earnings growth on job posts that are considered "high value," or resulting in a contract worth $1,000 or more. Low-value posts (resulting in contracts $251-500) are seeing a negative effect, with talent earning less on average.

This metric gives us even more insight into how AI is impacting different industries. For example, we're seeing a positive earnings increase on job posts related to:

  • Engineering and architecture
  • Data science and analytics
  • Accounting and consulting

We're seeing a decrease in talent earnings on job posts related to:

  • Customer service
  • Translation
  • Writing

This doesn't mean that independent professionals with development or writing skills are out of work. Rather, it presents an opportunity for these individuals to take on new projects in related, AI-enhanced fields. Our research indicates that there are a growing number of opportunities available for people with emerging skills like:

  • AI content creation
  • Prompt engineering
  • Natural language processing (NLP)
In demand Skills

Clients are also interested in working with talent that has experience using specific AI applications. Some of the most frequent generative AI tools searched for on our platform in the first half of 2023 include:

  • BERT
  • ChatGPT
  • Stable Diffusion
  • TensorFlow
  • Bard

What we can really take away from this is that the current wave of generative AI systems is all about augmenting, not replacing, human intelligence.

And that has the ability to be a game changer across all industries and roles—for those who are willing to embrace it.

Balancing competitive and cooperative skills

To fully benefit from AI's augmentation of human skills, you need to know what, exactly, you want to get out of the technology both tactically and strategically. This goes for both talent interested in expanding their work opportunities through AI, as well as clients interested in innovation.

Humans are good at tasks that are uncertain, ambiguous, or require creative thinking. AI, meanwhile, excels at complexity by being able to recognize patterns that are hard to recognize with the human eye. As a result, there are a number of different skills that can be competitive with AI and cooperative with the technology.

Striking the right balance at work leads to beneficial augmentation and innovation.

Create Skills Based Work

Leveraging AI for higher freelance earnings

When independent talent uses AI cooperatively and competitively, they can be ready to respond to the increasing number of job posts on Upwork from clients seeking AI support. And like their corporate clients, independent talent can use AI as a way to both work faster and innovate like never before.

Some independent professionals gain their first experience with AI through direct, hands-on work, while others pursue a more formal education path.

"My first career pivot was getting my CPA license and then pursuing a career in technology after five years of doing financial accounting," said Jacqueline DeStefano, a business intelligence and data visualization professional. "My second pivot occurred after I started my business, through learning generative AI and bringing it in as a strategic offering after upskilling tremendously ... I went back and got a certification from MIT for machine learning and artificial intelligence to ensure I fully understood how this technology can build client-specific solutions."

It may be helpful for independent professionals to start with taskification, or the process of breaking a job into smaller, discrete tasks. By deciding what is best handled by AI (complexity) or done themselves (ambiguity, uncertainty, creativity), talent can begin leveraging AI most effectively.

Embracing AI as a tool for business innovation

It's not just up to talent to use AI, either. For businesses to really see positive impacts from AI—including unlocking new levels of work and innovation—leaders need to explore what AI may bring to their organization.

An increase in AI-related searches on Upwork during 2023 indicates that many companies are eager to embrace this technology. Failing to do so may result in a company falling behind its competitors—and quickly.

By breaking away from the way work has always been done and instead questioning how work can be better, companies can move from being consistent industry players to true work innovators. A full-throated embrace of AI may include:

  • Analyzing what the ideal future state for a business and its stakeholders looks like
  • Gaining a deeper understanding of the four types of generative AI talent and what they can bring to a company
  • Consulting with AI professionals to learn more about what's possible with AI (we even do that right here at Upwork!)

Bee Line Transport is an example of a company that's done exactly this. General manager Ryan McCrae made the decision to move from a paper-based company to one that was fully digital. He needed someone to make it happen, though, and turned to Upwork—where he connected with Valere Labs.

Valere Labs, led by CEO Greg Pistone, helped McCrae digitally transform his entire trucking business with an application that lets drivers keep track of receipts, job details, and more, all from their phones. This saves McCrae and his team time—and money.

"We used to work with stacks of worksheets and tally them up one by one," said McCrae. "With a small crew, time is money. You have to be efficient. If you're duplicating work, you're wasting time. With our new web-based system we are much more efficient, and everything moves smoothly."

The cofounders of Lighthouse, a rental location service, are also seeing the impressive benefits of adding AI into their operations. Lighthouse relies on licensed real estate agents to help its customers find their perfect apartment—but now an always-on chatbot can help, too.

"We have a chatbot with access to 9,000 buildings and it's always on, always super responsive," said cofounder Matt See. "You can chat with the AI and tell it what you want, such as an apartment under $2,500 per month with a pool and a Starbucks nearby. The AI can tap into a lot of data sources to find exactly what you want; it does a really good job at that."

Since launching the chatbot, Lighthouse's agents can spend more time on high-value, high-touch work, like calling renters and apartment leasing offices.

Their ability to see which parts of their companies can be enhanced by the use of generative AI means that McCrae and See are already several steps ahead of competitors who may be reluctant to embrace the technology. In short, they're acting as work innovators.

Work innovators

Innovating for the future

Ultimately, even though generative AI solutions—and the neural networks that power them—may seem daunting, it's important to remember AI is just a tool. In this way it's like a car, a computer, a refrigerator, or even the cup of coffee that helps you wake up each morning.

And as humans, we're great at adapting to new tools to improve our work, our earnings, and our innovations. The key is to implement them thoughtfully and intentionally.  For everyone leveraging these developing technologies, Upwork will continue to provide help and support—from courses and guides to research and one-on-one consultations with AI experts. Our AI services hub is a great place to get started.

The tools are at your disposal. It's time to recognize any reticence you have about them, and to figure out how to use them—and create new opportunities in business.

Upwork is an OpenAI partner, giving OpenAI customers and other businesses direct access to trusted expert independent professionals experienced in working with OpenAI technologies. Upwork is a Jasper Affiliate and may receive referral payments from Jasper. When using Jasper, you will be subject to Jasper’s Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. As always, independent professionals remain responsible for evaluating the tools offered and determining the fit for their business needs, as well as their own compliance with all laws and legal requirements in operating their freelance business.

Upwork does not control, operate, or sponsor the other tools or services discussed in this article, which are only provided as potential options. Each reader and company should take the time to adequately analyze and determine the tools or services that would best fit their specific needs and situation.

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Author Spotlight

The Real-World Impact of Generative AI on Business
Kelly Monahan
Managing Director, Upwork Research Institute

Dr. Kelly Monahan is Managing Director of the Upwork Research Institute, leading our future of work research program. Her research has been recognized and published in both applied and academic journals, including MIT Sloan Management Review and the Journal of Strategic Management. In 2018, Kelly released her first book, “How Behavioral Economics Influences Management Decision-Making: A New Paradigm” (Academic Press/Elsevier Publishers). In 2019, Kelly gave her first TedX talk on the future of work. Kelly is frequently quoted in the media on talent decision-making and the future of work. She also has written over a dozen publications and is a sought-after speaker on how to apply new management and talent models in knowledge-based organizations. Kelly holds a B.S. from Rochester Institute of Technology, an M.S. from Roberts Wesleyan College and a Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership from Regent University.

The Real-World Impact of Generative AI on Business
Managing Director, Upwork Research Institute

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