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Will AI Replace Developers? GitHub Copilot Revives Existential Threat Angst

"Let's see the question we're all wondering ... can this replace our jobs?" said a Reddit reader commenting on the site's thread for GitHub Copilot, an "AI pair programmer" unveiled as a technical preview this week.

GitHub CEO Nat Friedman said the new AI system represented a breakthrough in the third revolution of software development: the use of AI in coding. As an AI pair programmer, it provides code-completion functionality and suggestions similar to IntelliSense/IntelliCode, though it goes beyond those Microsoft offerings with Codex, a new AI system developed by Microsoft partner OpenAI.

GitHub Copilot
[Click on image for larger view.] GitHub Copilot (source: GitHub).

The preview prompted a predictable revival of the years-long "AI will replace developers" theme on Reddit and the Hacker News dev-oriented social site. A GitHub Copilot post on Hacker News generated 1,225 comments as of this writing, while a Reddit post generated 532 comments.

Regarding the aforementioned Reddit comment, the reader had more to say on the question of AI replacing dev jobs:

Well this specifically, not even close. To use this effectively you have to deeply understand every line of code. Using it also requires you to have been able to write whatever snippet was autocompleted yourself. But if it works well, it would be an amazing productivity tool that reduces context switching. On the other hand, that originally spent looking at documentation reduces you to more fully understand the library, so for more complex work, it might have hurt in the long run since you didn't look at the docs.

But looking at the next iteration of this, beyond just helper function snippets, can it create fully functional and documented microservices and data schema for you? In a way, I hope so, and I hope not =).

Here's a smattering of other comments from both sites, in no particular order:

  • *AI replaces the client*
  • So this is why GitHub let developers host their code for free, to eventually replace them :(
  • I am blown away but not scared for my job... yet. I suspect the AI is only as good as the training examples from Github. If so, then this AI will never generate novel algorithms. The AI is simply performing some really amazing pattern matching to suggest code based on other pieces of code. But over the coming decades AI could dominate coding. I now believe in my lifetime it will be possible for an AI to win almost all coding competitions!
  • All this time we were using Github thinking "hey, this is neat and free", but didn't know that actually we were feeding the AI that will replace us all.
  • While this is cool and I look forward to trying it, it's not going to replace software engineers. Even if it worked 100% correctly, it would be a tool for software engineers. There are still a ton of problems for engineers to solve - Architecture, maintenance, and increasingly, we're getting pulled into dev ops and data science roles.
  • Tools like email, instant messenger, and online calendars made secretaries much more productive which increased demand for the skills. Wait... Replacement of programmers will follow these lines. New tools, like copilot (haven't tried, but will soon), new languages, libraries, better IDEs, stack overflows, Google, etc will make programming easier and more productive. One programmer will do the work that ten did. That a hundred did. You'll learn to become an effective programmer from a bootcamp (already possible - I know someone who went from bootcamp to Google), then from a few tutorials will. Just like the secretary's role in the office was replaced by everyone managing their own calendars and communications the programmer will be replaced by one or two tremendously productive folks and your average business person being able to generate enough code to get the job done.
  • I mean it totally could replace our jobs, if the requirements were clear, the specifications were exact, and developers only wrote code. So no... it won't replace our jobs any time in the near future.
  • We went through the same hype cycle with self driving cars. We are now ~15 years out from the DARPA challenges and to date exactly 0 drivers have been replaced by AI. It is certainly impressive to see how much the GPT models have improved. But the devil is in the last 10%. If you can create an AI that writes perfectly functional python code, but that same AI does not know how to upgrade an EC2 instance when the application starts hitting memory limits, then you haven't really replaced engineers, you have just given them more time to browse hacker news.
  • Reading this thread it seems to me that AI is a threat for "boilerplate-heavy" programming like website frontends, I can't really imagine pre-singularity AI being able to replace a programmer in the general case. Helping devs go through "boring", repetitive code faster seems like a good way to increase our productivity and make us more valuable, not less. Sure, if AI evolves to the point where it reaches human-level coding abilities we're in trouble, but that's the case this is going to revolutionize humanity as a whole (for better or worse), not merely our little niche.
  • No, programmers won't be replaced, we'll just add this to our toolbox. Every time our productivity increased we found new ways to spend it. There's no limit to our wants.
  • It could start to replace us in 20 years. Or reduce. It is exciting for now
  • The envelope of "programming" will continue to shift as things get more and more complex. Your mother-in-law is not going to install Copilot and start knocking out web apps. Tools like this allow programmers to become more productive, which increases demand for the skills.

Friedman himself weighed in on the issue in Hacker News comments, in this exchange:

Comment: "This is obviously controversial, since we are thinking about how this could displace a large portion of developers. How do you see Copilot being more augmentative than disruptive to the developer ecosystem? Also, how you see it different from regular code completion tools like tabnine."
Friedman: "We think that software development is entering its third wave of productivity change. The first was the creation of tools like compilers, debuggers, garbage collectors, and languages that made developers more productive. The second was open source where a global community of developers came together to build on each other's work. The third revolution will be the use of AI in coding. The problems we spend our days solving may change. But there will always be problems for humans to solve."

So it looks like developers -- like tech journalists -- are safe for the immediate future. But what do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.

About the Author

David Ramel is an editor and writer for Converge360.

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