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AGENTS OF CHANGE OP-ED

ChatGPT was disruptive, swarms of AI agents will be revolutionary

ChatGPT was disruptive, swarms of AI agents will be revolutionary
The potential of AI agents to replace human workers is no longer just a dystopian fantasy, but a reality that is rapidly developing, write the authors. (Photo: Gabby Jones/Bloomberg)

We face a future of networked swarms of AI agents, interacting, competing, autonomously negotiating with each other and — where necessary — with humans, to achieve their respective goals. This is an incredible moment in history for anyone with an entrepreneurial attitude.

There is a joke about a guy who falls out of a 20-storey building and halfway down someone shouts “How’s it going?” As the man plummets past, he gives the thumbs up and shouts “so far so good!”. This joke may prove troublingly portentous in this exponential era of artificial intelligence (AI).

We will put forward a vision of the near-term future and discuss how to adapt and prepare for it effectively, especially in the African context. But first, what if you are an AI-sceptic, believing that AI is mostly hot air and hype and will go through a sudden, sharp crash, like some cryptocurrencies and NFTs?

This is a valid concern. The difference lies in the scale of AI adoption by hard-nosed businesses hell-bent on improving efficiencies, integration with existing systems as well as the clear path to further improvements of AI. 

While there are many implications to consider — from AI bias and discrimination to super-human dystopian AI — we focus here specifically on what coming advances mean for the working world and the global economy: advances that are closer at hand and can be talked about with more confidence. 

Simply put, employers will likely increasingly face a choice: try to make their employees more productive with AI tools or choose to replace many of them entirely. In May 2023 the firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas found that AI was the 7th leading cause of job losses in the US. At what point will AI become the leading cause of job losses? Five years? Two Years?

ChatGPT burst onto the scene in late 2022 causing disbelief, worry and massive excitement. A novel form of AI, ChatGPT is trained on billions of pages of text to simply predict the next word in a sentence. Despite this simplicity, it is able to give startlingly good responses; from writing poems and answering university-level problems to helping programmers write, and find bugs and errors in their code.

Agents for productive change

But we are now seeing the emergence of AI Agents — AIs with autonomy and independence — which can do things, and not just write things.

Imagine an AI agent which can answer business intelligence questions by analysing your data using bespoke code it wrote for the task, just like a data analyst.

Guess what? OpenAI’s Advanced Data Analytics (ADA) capability now does this. You give it a task, it writes and runs its own code to solve it. And it keeps writing code until it believes it has succeeded, or requires more input from you. It was recently given the task of reanalysing the supernova data that led to the 2011 Nobel Prize for the discovery of the acceleration of the universe. In half an hour, ADA had succeeded.

Or how about AutoGPT and MetaGPT, two example agent systems released in 2023 that ask you for a one-line business requirement, and output user stories, competitive analyses, requirements, data structures, documents, code etc.

Inside the program, MetaGPT includes components which correspond to product and project managers, architects and engineers. While still in their infancy, these tools are evolving right now, and will have a major impact on many sectors of business. The power of these systems will be to learn from feedback and adapt, to carry out the job at hand in ways that you may not have imagined or wanted.

This may sound both far-fetched, and old-hat in terms of dystopian AI fantasy, but it is now plausible. The real breakthrough that enabled ChatGPT was human feedback. The same mechanism, taken to the next level, will likely lead to agents capable of fully replacing workers for entire job types.

Imagine an AI agent which never sleeps, and learns to do your job far faster than you did. It can do this because it is not just replacing you, but replacing people with your job title across the world, getting advice and feedback from all bosses and managers around the world. Such a scenario is not merely speculative; it is likely already being built.

Endless potential for business owners

And these agents will not work in isolation. We face a future of networked swarms of AI agents, interacting, competing, autonomously negotiating with each other and — where necessary — with humans, to achieve their respective goals. They will dynamically change their subgoals in order to achieve their primary goal. Crucially, these subgoals will mostly be determined by the agent, not humans.  

AI agents are also not the whole story. There are currently over 100 papers a day being published in all areas of AI. Research in this area has surged over the last decade and developments over the next two years are likely to surprise us, much as ChatGPT did.

The ability to analyse and understand speech and vision, and to effectively plan, will significantly increase the power of AI agents. We are already seeing an explosion of AI apps which create custom solutions.

At the time of writing, the website There’s an AI for that lists more than 9,000 available AI models for over 2,000 different everyday business tasks, from creating Powerpoint slides and building websites all the way to therapy bots and models which streamline the scientific process itself.

Part of the reason for the explosion in popularity of ChatGPT was the ease of use: the ability to communicate naturally through text. Already, newer models can analyse images and speech. Ultimately they will be able to interact with us completely seamlessly, incorporating facial expressions and body language.

The other major development around the corner is the ability to plan and reason over long timescales and understand causality. As things stand, models such as ChatGPT are unable to reliably reason through the effects of sequences of decisions, which is important for solving complex problems. However, such abilities are not far away.

On the other hand, the power of these systems will be amplified with better integration into existing processes, such as business and management. This requires individuals or companies to take the step of utilising these tools within their existing practices. In its simplest form, this is a browser tab open to help with writing, but the true power (and risk) is unlocked when these tools can interact directly with the entire data and process flow of a company.

Already Microsoft has launched its own agent-based system, Copilot, integrated with all your data and the suite of Microsoft apps including Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Teams. This is the first step. Armed with access to all of an organisation’s data, Copilot could be an indispensable companion, reducing friction and removing the need for much of the human communications’ overhead.

Watch your back

And that is just the start. Consider the following fictional scenario of a senior manager, Jeremy, in a mid-sized company in late 2024. Jeremy downloads SystemPerfect, an AI agent which can be integrated into any business system and watches all of the processes undertaken by the humans in the company in a way no human could.

In SystemPerfect there are a few questions to be answered at the beginning: “What are you trying to achieve in optimising your business?” “What aspects do you want to change?” “What aspects do you want to keep?”

SystemPerfect spends a week sitting inside the network of computers at Jeremy’s firm, watching the flow, like an eagle-eyed consultant, but with vastly more insight and access to far more moving parts than the best consultants could ever see. After a week, SystemPerfect delivers recommendations:

“1) This IT infrastructure is vastly inefficient. 2) You can replace these seven people with an AI agent system to perform these tasks far more efficiently, leading to a likely increase in profits of 5%. 3) This person can work with an AI to improve the speed of their data analysis by 130%. 4) These three clients should be dropped as they are clogging up your workflow and not generating profit. 5) These four people have spoken 82% less than average in the last five meetings and their performance should be assessed, their involvement in the project re-evaluated and, perhaps, their roles eliminated.”

Within a short period, Jeremy no longer needs any interns, and shortly afterwards even his most senior staff are looking redundant.

This may sound extremely utilitarian, but in the competitive world of business, surely these are the decisions which will be made. We are not condoning or advocating for this. But we do want to showcase that this is a probable future… and one which is not far off.

Without widespread regulation this trend may give rise to significant job losses and role redefinitions, requiring that people become more flexible in their skills and sense of identity.

The way we live and work may be very different in five years. This may eliminate a large number of boring, irrelevant jobs but it also raises existential questions about the social and political impact of AI and about the education system as it currently stands. How and what should we be teaching our children?

It isn’t all doom and gloom though. The proliferation of AI tools and agents will mean that almost anyone with an idea, some basic internet skills, and some entrepreneurial spirit, will be able to start a new business and service customers, potentially anywhere in the world.

This is potentially very good news for Africa — a growing continent of young self-starters and thriving informal economies based on micro-businesses. The downside is that suddenly, knowledge-economy businesses will have to compete with companies across the world, drastically raising the level of competition.

Governments can help the AI entrepreneurship movement by making it easier to start businesses and reducing unnecessary bureaucratic friction. They should make education around these AI tools easily available. In addition to job creation, we will need small company creation.

What does this mean for the individual? What can you do? Education is vital. Learn as much as you can about the tools available. While the technology is complex behind the scenes, the interface is not.

ChatGPT and Google’s Bard are designed to be easy to use. Experiment with them. Explore what they can do, and what they can’t. This is an incredible moment in history for anyone with an entrepreneurial attitude.

There are worries that we should all be aware of, but without understanding the tools, we cannot make educated choices and cannot prepare ourselves for what is undoubtedly going to be a wild future. DM

Professor Bruce Bassett is a Full Professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Cape Town and research astronomer at the South African Astronomical Observatory. His research focuses on applications of AI and statistics to astronomy and language. He is the founder and director of the graduate Data Science Intensive program and is the author of the book “Introducing Relativity”. He is on twitter/X as @cosmo_bruce.

Professor Benjamin Rosman is a Full Professor in the School of Computer Science and Applied Mathematics at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, where he runs the Robotics, Autonomous Intelligence and Learning (RAIL) Laboratory and is the Director of the National E-Science Postgraduate Teaching and Training Platform (NEPTTP). He is a co-founder of the Deep Learning Indaba machine learning summer school, and the Chief Science Officer of Lelapa AI, building AI for Africans, by Africans. He is currently a CIFAR-Azrieli Global Scholar under the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.

Jonathan Shock is an Associate Professor in the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics at the University of Cape Town where he runs the Shocklab research group, and an Adjunct Professor at the INRS in Montreal. His research covers physics, neuroscience and artificial intelligence applied to a variety of topics including material science for climate change, and reinforcement learning.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • ebizplanza says:

    This is very exiting. I’m using ChatGPT since February and caused my productivity to increase exponentially. Publishing 4 blogs a month before February, I’m doing at least one post a day including multimedia such as a YouTube video.

    I don’t think I can do without ChatGPT… It good, isn’t it? However, will it help jobless youth of South Africa? The rate is now 60% with very little skills to join the AI revolution.

    We need an organizational culture change with our Government to revolutionize our schooling system. We need to start with the basics.

    Otherwise I’m positive, Just a pity the Pinterest and Google Partners exclude South Africans from their business.

    All of the best

    Douw

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