Do web developers fear AI?
Recent advancements in AI tools, led by the announcement of GitHub Copilot, cause concern about unemployment. We explore what web developers think about the prospect of AI replacing them.
Will robots take over the world? Is Elon Musk right when he warns that AI is "our biggest existential threat"?
The risk of AI is subject to a wide array of opinions. Some well-known individuals, like the aforementioned Tesla CEO or the late superstar physicist Stephen Hawking, subscribed to a theory that artificial intelligence is eventually going to take over.
A number of AI safety experts believe that the current trajectory of research will bring us to the unleashing of AI that is dangerous for the human race1, 2 . Others claim, that the main issue with AI development are short-term concerns related to discrimination3 and machine bias4.
On the other hand, most programmers and machine learning researchers are skeptical of the notion that it could get out of control5, 6. They believe that arrival of superintelligent AI is very unlikely or even impossible due to computational limits7 or it’s inability to achieve consciousness8.
Nevertheless, there is one area of interest where everyone agrees that AI advancement will have a hugely disruptive impact.
This concern affects developers as much as other professions. The famous Oxford University report on “The future of employment”9 estimates that web developers have a 21% chance of being replaced by robots, much higher than f.e. pharmacists (0.012%), logisticians (0.012%), animators (0.015%), or electrical engineers and chemists (0.1%).
The discourse about the threats to web developers in the labor market has recently gathered pace with the announcement of GitHub Copilot10. It is an AI based tool, that uses the vast collection of GitHub’s 128+ million repositories11 to artificially construct code suggesting whole lines or even entire functions in order to speed development up.
We surveyed 500+ Web Developers to find out more about their thoughts on GitHub Copilot launch, AI risks to the job market and possible solutions. Here’s what we discovered:
- Do developers believe AI may cause unemployment in the web development industry?
- Do developers personally fear for their own jobs & opportunities?
- How many developers plan to use GitHub copilot in their work?
- What do developers think about the prospects of governments regulating AI research?
- What do developers think about social benefits as a solution to AI disrupting the market?
- Thoughts web developers have on the matter, expressed in their own words.
AI is definitely coming for web development jobs...
A majority of web developers recognize that AI is a real threat when it comes to the job market. 61.7% agreed that AI is likely to cause widespread unemployment in the web development industry.
Furthermore, 68.7% of those that believe that AI will contribute to job loss (42.4% of all), said that they “strongly agree” with the statement. This was actually the highest score for all extreme answers in the survey, and the only matter in which an extreme opinion was more popular than all of the moderate ones.
The tendency is also clear with only 8.8% who strongly disagree, 12.5% who disagree and 17% being neutral.
It seems that web developers are not blind to the effects that AI already has on other industries and they clearly expect that their own field will fall prey to robots replacing humans.
As mentioned earlier, even AI risk skeptics agree that it will disrupt the job market, so this outcome was highly expected. Nevertheless, this only makes the results of the following questions more interesting.
Especially the next one.
AI is likely to cause widespread unemployment in the web development industry in the future
...but I’m gonna be ok. Right?
Surprisingly, despite admitting that AI will eventually be problematic for the industry as a whole, web developers are optimistic about their own employment situation.
When asked if they personally think that AI may eventually take their own job and limit their future web development possibilities, a staggering majority of 66.8% disagreed.
There are multiple explanations for the dissonance that we observe arising when comparing the answers to these two, seemingly similar questions.
1. One of them could be that developers are simply confident of their skills. They believe that even if the field gets more and more computerized, their unique competence and experience will allow them to keep their positions.
2. Another could be that, although they think that web development as a whole is going to suffer an unemployment crisis, their particular sub-branch of web development, or a specific technology that they specialize in, will avoid that.
3. They can also believe that, even if low-level development tasks will be automated, and junior to mid positions will deteriorate - there will always be a demand for a small group of senior experts. Of course this would be paradoxical since it would mean that almost ¾ of web developers are “senior experts” and we know that it’s not true.
All of this is actually a book example of something called the Optimism Bias.
We all fall prey to the Optimism Bias, f.e. when was the last time you got into your car and thought:
“1.3 million people die in car crashes each year, so I guess I should be really careful“
Probably never. Most people break speed limits and drive somewhat carelessly, while being aware that traffic accidents are a leading cause of death and injury. We just can’t imagine that it will happen to us.
The same bias seems to be applicable in this case, as only 21.7% of respondents expressed any fear about their own jobs, while most of them predicted that other developers will lose theirs.
I personally think that AI may eventually take my web development job and limit my future web development possibilities.
Of course I want my job to be easier.
Another interesting finding is that although web developers perceive AI as a danger, they still plan to accelerate the growth of AI-powered tools by using them.
65.5% said that they plan to use GitHub Copilot in their work. 22.6% stayed neutral and only 11.9% stated that they will not use it.
It’s consistent with the previous answers, once again showing that web developers clearly believe that the negative effects of such tools will mostly affect everyone but them.
To be honest it’s hard not to understand this decision.
If everyone else has an advantage of getting a huge chunk of their work generated by AI, then you also should opt-in or risk lagging behind.
Web developers, and IT workers in general tend to recognize that in order to keep pace with the rest of the industry they have to use the latest and most advanced tools on the market.
From available material (GitHub copilot is currently only accessible as a closed beta), it looks like GitHub Copilot is indeed a very useful tool. Thanks to machine learning it is destined to only get better and more accurate and become a true gamechanger for the industry.
In any case, it seems that there will be no way out when Copilot and similar tools enter the market in full force. Developers will be compelled to use them and this will forever change their profession and daily tasks.
The change in workflow will most certainly be for the better, but it will also eventually reduce demand for devs.
So, should governments do something about that?
I plan to use GitHub Copilot in my work.
The subject of institutional control regarding AI research proved to be the most divisie matter of them all with the least variance between different stances.
Nevertheless, developers predictably leaned against the government meddling in IT affairs with 51% of responses.
The neutral group in this case was 23.2% - with the most neutral responses for the entire survey. 27.8% agreed that governments should consider introducing limits & regulations regarding AI development in order to avoid the unemployment crisis related to AI advancement.
What’s interesting is that those who agree, tend to agree strongly, with the number of extreme positive answers almost twice as numerous as moderate positive answers. This suggests that if you're a fan of regulation at all, you are likely to be frimly in favor of them.
But don’t let the regulation-hesitancy fool you.
If at this point you’re convinced that web developers are a bunch of small-government, anti-regulatory individuals the following part may shock you.
Governments should consider introducing limits & regulations regarding AI development in order to avoid the unemployment crisis related to AI advancement.
Conclusion: Summing up a typical Web Developer.
Survey results suggest that that a typical web developer:
- Recognizes that AI will eventually replace most of the industry
- Despite that, he is confident that his own job is safe
- Plans to incorporate GitHub Copilot in his work
- Opposes government regulation regarding AI research
- Supports government aid for displaced workers
Summing up, we should assume that a typical web developer doesn't fear AI, although he probably thinks that the industry as a whole should be alert.
Thoughts web developers have on the matter, expressed in their own words:
UBI or other solutions of this kind will become inevitable and we will have to come to terms with the fact that work is no longer the defining aspect of our identity.
Currently work is treated as a good in itself, I believe that the development of AI will show us that work is not necessary to flourish as a human being. People will turn to their passions and hobbies to fill that void and robots will do all of the essential work.
3 Bolukbasi, Tolga, Chang, Kai-Wei Zou, James Y. Saligrama, Venkatesh Kalai, Adam T., Man is to computer programmer as woman is to homemaker? debiasing word embeddings, Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems (2016)
The findings presented were obtained by surveying 513 respondents that work as web developers. They were asked questions related to their opinions on AI advancements, GitHub Copilot and governmental action. These included scale-based questions relating to levels of agreement with a statement, and a question that permitted open responses.
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