“This AI stuff is really going crazy.”

The voices of Charlamagne tha God, host of the nationally syndicated radio show “The Breakfast Club,” and his guests Mandii B and WeezyWTF filled Ylonda Sherrod’s car as she sped down Interstate 10 in Mississippi on her daily commute. Her favorite radio show discussed artificial intelligence, specifically an AI-generated sample of Biggie.

“Soundwise, it sounds cool,” Charlemagne of God said. “But it lacks soul.”

WeezyWTF responded: “I’ve had people ask me like, ‘Oh, would you replace the people who work for you with AI?’ I’m like, ‘No, dude.'”

Mrs. Sherrod nodded her head emphatically as she drove past low brick houses and strip malls lined with Waffle Houses. She arrived at the AT&T call center where she works, feeling anxious. She played the radio exchange about AI for a colleague.

“Yes, that’s crazy,” replied Mrs. Sherrod’s friend. “What do you think of us?”

Like so many millions of American workers, across so many thousands of jobs, the roughly 230 customer service representatives at AT&T’s call center in Ocean Springs, Miss., have watched artificial intelligence arrive over the past year and quickly and surely, like a new manager settling in. in and kicking the feet.

Suddenly, the customer service workers were not taking their own notes during calls with customers. Instead, an AI tool generated a transcript that their managers could later consult. AI technology provided suggestions on what to say to customers. Customers also spent time on phone lines with automated systems that solved simple questions and transferred the complicated ones to human representatives.

Ms. Sherrod, 38, who exudes quiet confidence at 5-foot-11, viewed the new technology with a combination of anger and fear. “I always had a question in the back of my mind,” she said. “Do I train my replacement?”

Ms. Sherrod, vice president of the local call center union chapter, part of the Communications Workers of America, began questioning AT&T executives. “If we don’t talk about this, it could put my family in danger,” she said. “Am I going to be unemployed?”

In recent months, the AI ​​chatbot ChatGPT has entered courts, classrooms, hospitals and everywhere in between. With it came speculation about the impact of AI on jobs. To many people, AI feels like a ticking time bomb, sure to explode their work. But for some, like Ms. Sherrod, the threat of AI is not abstract. They can already feel its effects.

When automation eats up jobs, it often comes for customer service roles first, which make up roughly three million jobs in the United States. Automation tends to bypass tasks that repeat themselves; customer service, already a major site for outsourcing jobs abroad, may be a prime candidate.

A majority of US call center workers surveyed this year reported that their employers are automating some of their work, according to a 2,000-person survey by researchers at Cornell. Nearly two-thirds of respondents said they felt it was somewhat or very likely that increased use of robots would lead to layoffs within the next two years.

Tech executives point out that fears of automation are centuries old—stretching back to the Ludoans who crashed and burned textile machines—but have historically been undercut by a reality in which automation creates more jobs than it eliminates.

But that job creation is happening little by little. The new jobs that technology is creating, such as engineering roles, often require complex skills. That can create a gap for workers like Ms. Sherrod, who found what seemed like a golden ticket at AT&T: a job that pays $21.87 an hour and up to $3,000 in commissions a month, she said, and provides health care and five weeks . vacation — all without requiring a college degree. (Less than 5 percent of AT&T’s roles require a college education.)

Customer service, to Ms. Sherrod, meant that someone like her—a young Black woman raised by her grandmother in small-town Mississippi—could live “really well.”

“We are breaking generational curses,” Ms. Sherrod said. “That one is sure.”

In Ms. Sherrod’s childhood home, a one-story, brick A-frame in Pascagoula, money was tight. Her mother died when she was 5. Her grandmother, who took her in, didn’t work, but Ms. Sherrod remembers getting food stamps to take to the corner bakery whenever the family could indulge them. Mrs. Sherrod cries remembering how Christmas used to be. The family had a plastic tree and tried to make it festive with decorations, but there was typically no money for gifts.

To students at Pascagoula High School, she recalled, job opportunities seemed limited. Many went to Ingalls Shipbuilding, a shipyard where work meant blistering days under the Mississippi sun. Others went to the local Chevron refinery.

“It felt like I was always going to have to do hard work for a living,” Ms Sherrod said. “It seemed like my lifestyle was never going to be something easy, something I enjoyed.”

When Ms. Sherrod was 16, she worked at KFC, earning $6.50 an hour. After graduating from high school, and dropping out of community college, she moved to Biloxi, Miss., to work as a housekeeper at IP Casino, a 32-story hotel, where her sister still works.

Within months of working at the casino, Ms. Sherrod felt the toll of the job on her body. Her knees hurt, and her back rumbled with pain. She had to clean at least 16 rooms a day, fish hair out of bathrooms and roll dirty sheets.

When a friend told her about the jobs at AT&T, the opportunity seemed impossibly good to Ms. Sherrod. The call center was air-conditioned. She could sit all day and rest her knees. She took the call center application test twice, and on her second time she got an offer, in 2006, starting out making $9.41 an hour, more than about $7.75 at the casino.

“That $9 meant so much to me,” she recalled.

Also AT&T, a place where she continued to grow more comfortable: “In 17 years, my check has never been wrong,” she said. “AT&T, by far, is the best job in the area.”

This spring, lawmakers in Washington pushed the makers of AI tools to begin discussing the risks posed by the products they released.

“Let me ask you, what is your biggest nightmare,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, asked OpenAI’s chief executive, Sam Altman, after sharing that his biggest fear is job loss.

“There will be an impact on jobs,” said Mr. Altman, whose company developed ChatGPT.

That reality has already become evident. British telecommunications company BT Group announced in May that it will cut up to 55,000 jobs by 2030 as it increasingly relies on AI. The chief executive of IBM said that AI will affect certain jobs in the company, eliminating the need for up to 30 percent of the company. some roles, creating new ones.

AT&T has begun integrating AI into many parts of its customer service work, including directing customers to agents, offering suggestions for technical solutions during customer calls and producing transcripts.

The company said all these uses were aimed at creating a better experience for customers and workers. “We’re really trying to focus on using AI to augment and help our employees,” said Nicole Rafferty, who leads AT&T’s customer care operation and works with employees nationwide.

“We will always need a personal commitment to resolve those complex customer situations,” Ms Rafferty added. “That’s why we’re so focused on building AI that supports our employees.”

Economists studying AI have argued that it is most likely not to cause sudden widespread layoffs. Instead, it could gradually remove the need for people to do certain tasks – and make the remaining work more difficult.

“The tasks left to call center workers are the most complex, and customers are frustrated,” said Virginia Doellgast, a professor at the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell.

Mrs. Sherrod always enjoyed getting to know her customers. She said she took about 20 calls a day, from 9:30 to 6:30. As she solves technical problems, she listens to why people call, and she hears from customers who recently bought new homes, got married or lost family members.

“It’s like you’re a therapist,” she said. “They tell you their life stories.”

She already finds her job more challenging with AI. Automated technology has a hard time understanding Ms. Sherrod’s fear, she said, so the transcripts of her calls are riddled with errors. Once the technology is no longer in pilot phase, she will not be able to make corrections. (AT&T said it was refining the AI ​​products it used to prevent these types of errors.)

It seems likely, to Ms. Sherrod, that someday when work becomes more efficient, the company won’t need so many people answering calls in its centers.

Ms. Sherrod also asks: Does the company not trust her? For two consecutive years, she won AT&T’s Top Award, placing her in the top 3 percent of the company’s customer service representatives nationwide. Her name was projected on the wall of the call center.

“They gave everybody a gift bag with a trophy,” Mrs. Sherrod recalled. “That meant a lot to me.”

As companies like AT&T embrace AI, experts present proposals to protect workers. There is the possibility of training programs helping people make the transition to new jobs, or a displacement tax levied on employers when a worker’s job is automated but the person is not retrained.

Labor unions wade into these battles. In Hollywood, the unions representing actors and TV writers have fought to limit the use of AI in scriptwriting and production.

Only 6 percent of the country’s private sector workers are represented by unions. Ms. Sherrod is one, and she began fighting her company for more information about its AI plans, sitting in her union hall nine miles from the call center where she works beneath a Norman Rockwell painting of a wire technician.

For years, Ms. Sherrod’s demands on behalf of the union have been memorized. As a flight attendant, she routinely asked the company to reduce penalties for colleagues who were in trouble.

But for the first time, this summer, she feels like she’s dealing with an issue that will affect workers beyond AT&T. She recently asked her union to set up a task force focused on AI

In late May, Ms. Sherrod was invited by the Communications Workers of America to travel to Washington, D.C., where she and dozens of other workers met with the White House Office of Public Engagement to share their experience with AI.

A warehouse worker described being monitored by AI that tracked how fast he moved packages, creating pressure to skip breaks. Deliveryman said automated surveillance technologies were used to monitor workers and look for possible disciplinary actions, although their records were not reliable. Ms. Sherrod described how the AI ​​in her call center created inaccurate summaries of her work.

Her son, Malik, was surprised to hear that his mother was headed for the White House. “When my dad told me about it, at first I said, ‘You’re lying,'” he said with a laugh.

Ms. Sherrod sometimes feels that her life presents an argument for a type of work that one day may no longer exist.

With her salary and commissions, she was able to buy a home. She lives on a sunny street full of families, some of whom work in fields like nursing and accounting. She is down the road from a softball field and playground. During the weekends, her neighbors gather for cookouts. The adults eat snowballs, while the children play basketball and set up sprinklers.

Mrs. Sherrod is proud to buy Malik anything he asks for. She wants to give him the childhood she never had.

“Call center work – it’s life-changing,” she said. “Look at my life. Will all that be taken away from me?”

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