Stop say­ing I’ll be re­placed by a robot

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Opin­ion - By LY­DIA LIM

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 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

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