Inside Adobe, some staff worry their AI tech will kill graphic designer jobs and undermine the company’s business model: ‘Is this what we want?’

  • Adobe employees worry their AI technology could kill graphic designer jobs.
  • Adobe AI tools make it easy to add new graphic elements or edit photos with text prompts.
  • Employees are also concerned about AI “cannibalizing” Adobe’s own business.

Inside Adobe, there’s a debate raging over new AI technology that threatens to kill jobs among a key group of customers and potentially undermine the company’s business model.

The software giant this year unveiled Firefly, a suite of generative AI tools that’s rolling out across many of its products. Photoshop, Adobe’s popular software for graphic designers, got an AI tool that lets users add or remove graphic elements, or extend a picture, with simple text prompts.

Wall Street has mostly cheered these developments. The response from some Adobe employees has been less enthusiastic, according to internal messages viewed by Insider and interviews with employees.

One senior designer at Adobe recently wrote in an internal AI ethics Slack channel that a billboard and advertising business he knows plans to reduce the size of its graphic design team because of Photoshop’s new text-to-image features.

“Is this what we want?” the person wrote.

Adobe has jumped into the AI race, putting itself in a tricky position. The company relies on graphic designers as customers and has helped make the industry more productive with powerful software. Now, though, this technology has become so potent that it might put some of these customers out of work. AI systems could eliminate 300 million jobs worldwide, including a quarter of those in the arts and design industries, Goldman Sachs estimated recently.

Adobe’s spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment.

‘Existential crisis’

Other messages in the Adobe Slack channel were more critical of the AI revolution, calling it “depressing” and an “existential crisis” for many designers. One person said some artists now feel like they are “slaves” to the AI algorithm, since their jobs will mostly involve just touching-up AI-generated work.

Some had a more positive view. Photoshop made artists more productive, and AI will only increase their efficiency, they said. One person said many freelancers and hobbyists will benefit from the increased output, even if some companies reduce their design workforce.

“I don’t think we should feel guilty for providing better and faster tools, as long as it’s done ethically,” that person wrote in the Slack channel.

Adobe isn’t the only company with art-generating AI. OpenAI, the maker of ChatGPT, has developed DALL-E, which can create images from text prompts. Other startups, like Midjourney, StabilityAI, and Runway, have reached sky-high valuations based on similar image-generation technology.

But Adobe, with over $17 billion in annual sales, is by far the biggest of them. The company says it is pushing for responsible use of AI. For example, the company has stated that its Firefly AI models was trained on Adobe Stock images, “openly licensed content,” and public domain content where copyright has expired. The company didn’t respond to a question about what “openly licensed content” means in practice. Some artists have accused Adobe of using their work without express consent or proper compensation, according to VentureBeat.

Unsettling seats

The bigger question for some employees is AI’s impact on Adobe’s own business.

During an internal staff meeting in June, one employee asked whether generative AI was putting Adobe “in danger of cannibalizing” its lucrative business that targets corporate customers, in exchange for individual users “who want it free or cheap,” according to a screenshot of the question submitted online. Adobe executives didn’t answer the question, according to a person familiar with the meeting.

A similar question was broached during an Adobe earnings call in June. Jefferies analyst Brent Thill said the “number one question” he gets from investors is whether AI will reduce Adobe’s “seats available.”

This is a closely watched measure of the company’s customer base. Adobe often sells cloud software subscriptions based on the number of seats, or licenses, which give customers access to the technology. A company with, say, 5 graphic designers in-house would buy five licenses. So if designers are getting laid off, demand for licenses might fall, cutting into Adobe’s revenue, or slowing sales growth.

In response to Thill’s question, David Wadhwani, Adobe’s president of digital media, said the company has a history of introducing new technology that leads to more productivity and jobs.

‘Slot coin operator’

Some employees are not sold on this idea. In the internal Slack channel, a group of employees discussed how new generative AI technology is fundamentally different from prior disruptive innovations.

Cameras, for example, still required skill and expertise to produce good photography, they said. In contrast, generating AI images requires almost no skill, raising concerns over losing “craft and expertise that can only be gained through continued practice and personal creativity,” one of the people wrote in the Slack channel.

“The ‘slot coin operator’ model of creativity is not a world I want to live in, randomly cycling outputs from a plethora of mashed together concepts,” another person wrote. “Personally I wish Adobe had not gone down the path of releasing pure text 2 image and had continued to focus exclusively on tools that empower artists to create.”

On top of that, previous artistic revolutions opened up new mediums, with cameras helping to create photographs that looked nothing like old paintings, some of the people said. AI images, however, directly compete with existing digital formats.

“It does not innovate in the way a camera does in that it replaces people in the mediums that it draws data from instead of opening up new means of expression,” one of the people wrote.

‘In Microsoft’s league’

Wall Street doesn’t seem too worried. Adobe’s stock is up more than 50% this year, placing it at the top of the BVP Cloud Index with a roughly $235 billion market value. Bernstein analysts gave a bullish view in a note last month, saying Adobe has made the biggest noise in the AI space, alongside Microsoft, which is a major OpenAI investor.

“Adobe is in Microsoft’s league when it comes to which companies have made concerted, thoughtful investments in AI over many years and is going to offer generative AI everywhere within its offerings,” the Bernstein note said.

For now, Adobe is encouraging employees to try AI chatbots, like ChatGPT, though it set specific guardrails on using them at work, as Insider previously reported.

But according to internal Slack conversations, employees still want more answers. Some raised questions around Adobe’s ethical use of AI and the environmental impact of its workload. One person wrote that Adobe lawyers should give an internal town hall on the state of AI regulation, while another said the pace of change is “murky at best to predict.”

“What we do know is that many folks are apprehensive or concerned as a result of that uncertainty,” one of the people wrote in Slack. “So the question then becomes: how do we create transparency and some sense of continuity or what to expect, to help dispel or quell worries?”

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