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The World Will Not Implode With The Advent of AI

Originally published on The Straits Times by Ven Sreenivasan on July 20, 2020

A robot at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai on July 9. The writer says that while most observers would agree that technology driven by artificial intelligence improves lives, just as many now fear its impact on jobs and incomes. PHOTO: REUTERS

If there is one thing the global coronavirus pandemic has shown, it is the potential of technology to reshape our lives.

Remote working, distant learning, online transactions, teleconferencing and even telemedicine have all graduated from distant possibilities to become common and current reality over the past five months.

This, in turn, has rekindled the debate over the opportunities and challenges posed by technology.

While most observers would agree that technology driven by artificial intelligence (AI) improves lives, just as many now fear its impact on jobs and incomes.

This fear has existed for many years, though not as pervasively in public discourse as it does now.

But the fears are not unfounded.

In 2013, Oxford University academics Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne used a machine-learning algorithm to assess how easily 702 different kinds of jobs in the United States could be automated.

They found that fully 47 per cent could be done by machines over the next decade or two. In short, half of all jobs could be taken over by AI and machines by 2025.

In another study in 2018 - this time focused on Singapore - PricewaterhouseCoopers projected three AI-driven technology waves rocking the local job market.

The algorithmic wave, which would see automation of many simpler computational tasks, would lead to 4 per cent of jobs being lost.

This would be followed by the augmentation wave, which would see job losses of 18 per cent as robotics is increasingly applied in the manufacturing and supply chain.

Next would be the autonomous wave, where 26 per cent of jobs would be lost as automation replaces physical labour, manual dexterity and "problem solving in dynamic real world situations that require responsive actions, such as in transport and construction" by the 2030s.

Other studies suggested that as much as a third of the jobs now undertaken by human beings can be replaced by AI-powered smart machines by 2025.

In 2017, a Cisco report cited global machine-to-machine connections in the industry growing at a 30 per cent compounded annual growth rate.

While dire warnings about these "weapons of maths" destruction have come from no lesser technological heroes than Mr Elon Musk and Mr Jack Ma, proponents of AI point out that technological innovation has generally improved the lot of mankind.

Still, polls show that four in 10 workers are worried that their jobs could disappear.

Not helping is the "Terminator" argument that smart, self-learning machines could someday simply replace humans altogether.

According to this argument, self-learning machines will steadily acquire enough intelligence to one day question the need for impediments to efficiency, namely humans. And thus they could ultimately choose to replace and exterminate their makers.

While attention-grabbing, the argument misses some key points.

Indeed, some jobs will be lost. But machines don't have common sense or heuristic capabilities.

Even the smartest machines can make dumb decisions. (Remember the fatal Tesla self-driving car crash caused by the AI not recognising a truck?)

Also, data can fall into the wrong hands.

Human intervention and input will always be critical. In this new world, new sets of skills will be needed. Skills such as coding, Web design, programming, data analytics, cyber security, e-commerce management, digital marketing and more.

But some workers will invariably be left behind. Research firm Forrester concluded that 29 per cent of jobs will be lost by 2030, with only about 13 per cent job creation to compensate.

How societies deal with folks who struggle to adapt to the new economy will determine political, social and economic outcomes.

While a lot of ink has been spilt on describing the impact of technological change on jobs, there has been much less discussion on its impact on business.

AI's impact on business will be no less profound and permanent, as business models will be challenged by lower barriers to entry, changing cost structures and competition for talent.

Businesses will also have to adjust to a world where remote working, webinars and cross-border satellite operations and offices become the norm. The dynamics of access to cross-border talent could change.

How businesses manage these challenges will determine their relevance and survivability. While many larger global companies have the resources to manage the change, smaller local players could struggle to cope.

Government policies and assistance will be crucial.

Industries likely to be most impacted could be transport, supply chain management and logistics, manufacturing and finance.

Others, like education, healthcare, food services and accommodation are likely to have longer lead times to adjust.

But, as Forrester noted, despite apocalyptic predictions, the full implications of automation are still unknown.

Still, the advent of AI is simply one more industrial revolution in the history of mankind.

The first notable one took place in the 1800s, when agrarian society moved towards industrialisation with the advent of machines.

The second industrial revolution came in the early 1900s, with the discovery of electricity. This simply speeded up the industrialisation of society, while also adding more convenience to life in general.

Then in the 1980s, the technological revolution kicked off, with digitalisation and computers emerging.

So AI is simply the latest avatar of progressive evolution.

Each of the previous revolutions was initially met by consternation and fear. But ultimately, a new normal was established. New - and more - jobs were created. Greater opportunities arose. Life improved for the majority.

And the world did not implode.

As the University of Washington's AI specialist Pedro Domingos once noted, the real question is not about man versus machine. It is about how man can harness machines to improve lives, cure diseases, create opportunities and reduce costs.


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