OP-ED: Adopting AI— beware white-collar pride and prejudice

A pioneering fintech founder warns of AI's transformative impact on high-achieving professionals, urging adaptation over pride to navigate the evolving landscape of work and entrepreneurship.

OP-ED: Adopting AI— beware white-collar pride and prejudice
Photo by Emiliano Vittoriosi / Unsplash

A few months ago, I was stunned by an admission from one of the smartest people I know—a brilliant African fintech founder operating at the cutting edge of crypto innovation and advanced AI deployment. 

The man’s work is truly groundbreaking. Despite his impressive accomplishments, he admitted that high-functioning white-collar professionals like himself are among those most likely to be caught off guard by the widespread adoption of AI in everyday work life.

Apparently, such professionals, despite their expertise, are at risk of having their livelihoods eroded by less skilled or less experienced individuals who recognise their need to adapt and are open to using AI tools to fill in their expertise gaps. Ironically, it is often their own misplaced pride and prejudice that prevents these high achievers from embracing AI's more accessible benefits and fully leveraging its potential to enhance their entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial pursuits.

These insights align with research by OpenAI and the University of Pennsylvania, which indicates that American white-collar professionals with higher education levels and annual salaries of up to $80,000—a comfortable middle-class income slightly above the national median—are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of workforce automation. 

A report by Goldman Sachs suggests that around 300 million jobs globally could be affected by generative AI, with white-collar workers being the most at risk. This includes roles such as data entry, administrative support, customer service, and financial analysis. For Africa, where a rapidly growing youth population is entering the workforce, this presents a dual challenge: the need for job creation in a landscape where AI could potentially replace many traditional roles.

As the continent stands on the brink of transformative change driven by AI, I have been reflecting on my own increasing reliance on AI tools to enhance my hybrid media-led entrepreneurial and consulting activities. I currently use nearly ten AI tools, which have become indispensable for producing and delivering my (mostly white-collar) work in ways I never imagined possible just a year ago.

Even as I type this column piece, the disruptive potential of generative AI in particular is not lost on me. In the media industry, AI is not just a tool but a creative agent. Leading global researchers have long estimated that up to 90% of news could be written by machines within the next 15 years. Major publishers the world over are now heavily reliant on AI-driven tools like ChatGPT to aid the generation of news articles, though their accuracy and reliability are often debated. 

AI’s ability to generate text, images, video and audio (even music) opens new avenues for content creation, potentially replacing human creators in several industries. In Africa's diverse and culturally rich creative industries, this could boost productivity and creativity, but it also risks diluting the uniquely human touch that defines much of the continent's creative output—including my own.

In the marketing realm, global ​​customer relationship management (CRM) platform Salesforce has published research showing that 92% of consumer goods executives they've surveyed are actively leveraging AI for achieving scalability and enhancing efficiency that will advance their corporate growth holy grail. According to McKinsey, generative AI could contribute between $400 billion and $660 billion in value to the industry by boosting productivity. However, top-flight marketers might still be a ways away from complete and utter disruption as an average of 18 different data sources are relied upon for customer engagement and promotional insights. This reliance on numerous data sources not only complicates promotional planning but also hampers the effective and relevant application of data in AI models intended for scaling operations.

In the evolving tech landscape, the idea that technology jobs are safe from automation is changing swiftly. Coders, computer programmers, and software engineers have started competing with AI systems capable of both writing and debugging code. Moreover, AI agents—autonomous software entities designed to perceive, learn, make decisions, and act to achieve goals—are rapidly proliferating across various sectors. And, as AI translation tools advance, they have the potential to replace traditional human translation in specific contexts. That could significantly benefit companies aiming to expand into Africa's extensive, diverse, and multilingual markets.

As Africa’s tech startup ecosystem expands, there's a growing need to transition from traditional tech roles to more advanced, AI-focused positions. This shift demands new skills and adaptability.

As I ponder these shifts, I can’t help but think we’re like a school of fish, trying to dodge the inevitable AI-powered net while dancing with the currents of change. Turns out even the smartest among us might benefit from a dose of humility and accepting a little help from some tireless, albeit somewhat algorithmic, allies.

Editorial Note: This opinion editorial was first published by Business Report on 2 July 2024.