AI race is disrupting education firms – and that is just the star

The artificial intelligence race is already producing losers. On Tuesday, education companies trading on the London and New York stock exchanges saw hundreds of millions wiped from their valuations after Chegg, a US firm that provides online help to students for writing and maths work, said ChatGPT was affecting customer growth.

The firm said it had seen a “significant spike” in students using the technology and withdrew its profits guidance for the rest of the year, warning revenues had already been hit. Its shares almost halved in value. The ripples were felt in London, where education giant Pearson’s stock closed down 15%.

ChatGPT has become a phenomenon since its launch in November thanks to its ability to generate a range of plausible-sounding responses – including in the form of academic essays – to text prompts. It reached 100 million users within two months. Now it is starting to have an impact on businesses.

Fears about the unexpected consequences of unchecked AI development led to the publication in March of a letter – whose signatories included Elon Musk and Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple – calling for a moratorium on the creation of giant “AIs” for at least six months. It alluded to economic impacts, asking if we should “automate away all the jobs, including the fulfilling ones”.

While governments and the private businesses behind generative AI are being implored to act, change is already happening.

The tech industry has been taken by surprise by the embrace of ChatGPT and other generative AI tools, says Dr Andrew Rogoyski of the Institute for People-Centred AI at the University of Surrey.

“In the long run, I think humans will adapt but in the short term, we are talking about businesses having to adapt in a period of weeks rather than months and years. I think that has the potential to cause harm,” he says, adding that there is a gap between the speed of disruption caused by these AI breakthroughs and humanity’s ability to adapt and change.

This week a British computer scientist described as the godfather of AI, Geoffrey Hinton, quit Google as he warned about the impact of the technology on the jobs market and the “existential risk” posed by the creation of true digital intelligence.

The World Economic Forum, the organisation behind Davos, said this week that it expected technological changes including AI to cause “significant” disruption in jobs markets. WEF surveyed more than 800 companies with 11.3 million employees, with 25% of them saying they expected AI to create job losses, although 50% said they expected it to spur job growth. In March, Goldman Sachs said recent breakthroughs in AI could lead to the automation of around 300m full-time jobs, with lawyers and administrative staff among those affected.

Announcements such as Chegg’s are turning these predictions into an immediate reality. While Pearson clawed back half its losses in early trading on Wednesday, Chegg only recovered by 12%, remaining well down after Tuesday’s 48% drop.

Even the boss of Google, which has launched a ChatGPT rival, has said the speed of AI development is keeping him awake at night. And it is being driven by the private sector: according to the annual AI Index Report, the tech industry produced 32 significant machine-learning models last year, compared with three produced by academia. Commercial imperatives will speed up the AI race and make attempts at regulation look even more slow-footed.

One of the criticisms of the moratorium letter, made by the Distributed AI Research Institute, was that it ignored the “actual harms resulting from the deployment of AI systems today.”. As Chegg’s warning showed, the disruption is here already.

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