Stop saying I’ll be replaced by a robot
I SUPPOSE I could sit here and fret over a day in the not-too-distant future when a robot powered by artificial intelligence (AI) will spit out newspaper columns like this one, rendering redundant columnists like me. After all, there have been reports that computers can already churn out news reports that read almost as well as those written by journalists, and in a fraction of the time taken.
The thought of being replaced by software is depressing and, I might add, self-defeating.
That is why I disagree with the way technological advances and the future of work are all too often framed in either-or terms: either robot or human worker, either AI or human brain.
Automation and AI are more often than not viewed – in most parts of the world too – as threats to jobs and human well-being. An extreme example of such thinking is exemplified by historian Yuval Noah Harari, author of the bestselling book Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind (2011).
In an essay for ideas.ted.com bearing the headline “The Rise Of The Useless Class”, he writes: “The most important question in 21st-century economics may well be: What should we do with all the superfluous people, once we have highly intelligent non-conscious algorithms that can do almost everything better than humans?”
He adds that “the idea that humans will always have a unique ability beyond the reach of nonconscious algorithms is just wishful thinking” because “every animal – including Homo sapiens –isan assemblage of organic algorithms shaped by natural selection over millions of years of evolution”.
I question if human beings can be reduced to “assemblages of organic algorithms” but even if that view has some basis, it remains unclear what time frame Harari has in mind for his doomsday scenario.
For the foreseeable future, though, I propose a reframing of the challenge, along the lines put forth in a 2015 Harvard Business Review (HBR) article by Prof Thomas H. Davenport and Julia Kirby entitled “Beyond Automation”.
They write: “What if we were to reframe the situation?
“What if, rather than asking the traditional question – what tasks currently performed by humans will soon be done more cheaply and rapidly by machines? – we ask a new one: what new feats might people achieve if they had better thinking machines to assist them?
“Instead of seeing work as a zerosum game with machines taking an ever greater share, we might see growing possibilities for employment.
“We could reframe the threat of automation as an opportunity for augmentation.”
New feats, growing possibilities for employment, opportunity for augmentation – such phrases are not common currency in talk on the future of work. Yet they should be.
Such a paradigm shift has the power to unlock human potential, for it encourages people to stop agonising over cost and headcount cuts and imagine instead ways to bring about growth – business growth, economic growth, and personal and professional growth.
A change of focus from automation to augmentation changes the outlook for humans.
The first implies we will be replaced by robots while the second points to us collaborating with robots to achieve what’s impossible today.
Prof Davenport and Kirby also quote MIT economist David Autor, who tracks effects of automation on labour markets and points to the immense challenge of applying machines to tasks that call for flexibility, judgment, or common sense.
He says: “Tasks that cannot be substituted by computerisation are generally complemented by it”, a point that “is as fundamental as it is overlooked”.
So what to make of dire forecasts of millions of jobs – including graduate jobs – being lost to robots and AI? My sense is they are unhelpful. The impact of technology differs from place to place, depending on context and local circumstances. The rise of robots is much less of a concern for a small, labour-scarce country like Singapore than it is for a large, labour-rich one like China.
Worries about mass unemployment may in fact be overblown, the McKinsey Global Institute concludes in a report issued in January – A Future That Works: Automation, Employment And Productivity.
“While much of the current debate about automation has focused on the potential for mass unemployment, predicated on a surplus of human labour, the world’s economy will actually need every erg of human labour working, in addition to the robots, to overcome demographic ageing trends in both developed and developing economies.
“In other words, a surplus of human labour is much less likely to occur than a deficit of human labour, unless automation is deployed widely,” the McKinsey team writes.
Yes, the nature of work will change. As processes are transformed by automation of certain tasks, “people will perform activities that are complementary to the work that machines do (and vice versa)”. The key word here is complementary, that is, humans and robots working together.
It would be sweet irony if the entry of robots into the workplace helps us become more fully human. I certainly look forward to that day, and to a machine helping me write better columns. – The Straits Times/ Asia News Network