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.

Published 12.08.2021 by Filip Kapusta

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.

Jobs.

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:


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


All responses Result
Strongly Agree 42.4%
Agree 19.3%
Neutral 17%
Disagree 12.5%
Strongly Disagree 8.8%

...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.

Optimism Bias is a cognitive bias that causes someone to believe that they themselves are less likely to experience a negative event. People tend to overestimate the probability of positive events and underestimate the probability of negative events happening to them in the future even if they know the data, and understand the probability for anybody else. In short - we think that we are special.

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.


All responses Result
Strongly Agree 10%
Agree 11.7%
Neutral 11.5%
Disagree 47.1%
Strongly Disagree 19.7%

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.


All responses Result
Strongly Agree 22.3%
Agree 43.2%
Neutral 22.6%
Disagree 7%
Strongly Disagree 4.9%

Regulations? Nah.

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.


All responses Result
Strongly Agree 16.8%
Agree 9%
Neutral 23.2%
Disagree 29.1%
Strongly Disagree 21.9%

Social benefits? That sounds better.

An astounding 70% of respondents suggested that governments should consider introducing social benefit policies (f.e. social aids, health & shelter benefits, universal basic income etc.) in order to ease the burden of industry transformation and avoid the unemployment crisis related to AI advancement.

This is probably the most unexpected finding of the survey, especially after seeing the results of the previous question.

But when looking at the entire survey, it starts to build a bigger picture.

It seems that web developers are aware of the danger that AI poses for the job market. Rather than preventing the disruption with limits & regulations on research, they prefer to alleviate the issue with the use of financial aid.

Governments should consider introducing social benefit policies (f.e. social aids, health & shelter benefits, universal basic income etc.) in order to ease the burden of industry transformation and avoid the unemployment crisis related to AI advancement.


All responses Result
Strongly Agree 30.3%
Agree 37.7%
Neutral 18.4%
Disagree 5.5%
Strongly Disagree 8.2%

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:


Sources:

1 Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, Viking Penguin, New York (2005)

2 Yampolskiy, R.V., Predicting future AI failures from historic examples, Foresight, (2019)

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)

4 Caliskan, Bryson, Narayanan, Semantics derived automatically from language corpora contain human-like biases, Science (2017)

5 Johnson, Verdicchio, AI Anxiety, ASIS&T (2017)

6 Braga, Logan, The Emperor of Strong AI Has No Clothes: Limits to Artificial Intelligence, Information (2017)

7 Benthall, Don't Fear the Reaper: Refuting Bostrom's Superintelligence Argument, ArXiv (2017)

8 Logan, Can Computers Become Conscious, an Essential Condition for the Singularity?, Information (2017)

9 Frey, Osborne, The future of employment, Oxford University (2013)

10 Friedman, Introducing GitHub Copilot, GitHubs Official Blog (2021)

11 Kashyap, GitHub’s Path to 128M Public Repositories, Towards Data Science (2020)

12 Multiple authors, Optimism bias, Wikipedia (2021)


Mehtodology

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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Filip Kapusta

Head of Marketing Analytics in MDB, Polish-Japanese Academy of Information Technology. Specializes in IT management & web projects, data analysis, UX & automation.

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