A new study from Stanford and MIT has found that AI tools like chatbots can make low-skilled and entry-level employees in fields like customer service up to 14% more productive. The finding challenges the “prevailing” idea that automation will negatively affect low-skilled workers, Bloomberg writes, and shows that AI may actually help narrow the gap between highly skilled and lower skilled staff.
The research marks the first time the impact of generative AI tools on work has been measured outside the lab. Prior studies have benchmarked the capabilities of large language models against tasks in fields like law and medicine — showing that, for example, GPT-4 aces the bar exam in the 90th percentile. Other research has tested the tech’s impact on workers’ performance of isolated writing tasks in small-scale laboratory settings.
Specifically, the study found that customer service agents at a Fortune 500 software company who used AI tools were 14% more productive on average than those who did not, with the least-skilled workers benefiting the most as mentioned in the article published in Bloomberg.
One of the study’s findings was that novice workers benefitted most from the tech, the researchers said. With the assistance of AI, the firm’s least-skilled workers could get their work done 35% faster. New workers’ performance also improved much more rapidly with the assistance of AI than without: According to the study, agents with two months of experience who AI aided performed just as well or better in many ways than agents with over six months of experience who worked without AI.
The research suggests that the boost in low-skilled workers’ productivity and performance may come, in part, from the way that AI tools can absorb the tacit knowledge that makes the firm’s top performers excel — like knowing the best language to use to soothe an angry customer or what technical documentation would be most helpful to share in each situation — and then disseminate that knowledge to less-skilled or experienced workers through AI-generated suggested responses.
These findings counter the prevailing notion that automation tends to hurt low-skilled workers most, as has played out over the last several decades of technological advances in manufacturing and other industries.
The productivity gains — about 14% on average — were less dramatic than in prior experiments, likely because real-world workplace processes are much more complex than one-off tasks. Still, the boost in productivity was significant.
The most highly skilled workers saw little to no benefit from introducing AI into their work. The researchers said these top performers were likely already giving the responses at the same calibre that the AI was recommending, so there was less room for improvement — if anything, the prompts may have been a distraction.
If AI does ultimately narrow the gap between low- and high-skilled workers, however, companies may need to fundamentally rethink the logic underpinning compensation choices.
Top customer service agents had Excel spreadsheets where they collected phrases that they used often, and that worked well.
Forward-thinking companies would be wise to recognize the expertise of their star employees since their tacit knowledge and skill will likely form the basis of the AI tools that will power the rest of the organization.
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