Saturday, May 25, 2019

Amante: Can you beat a robot?

FOR a man worth an estimated US$30.3 billion net, Jack Ma can sound as cheerful as a funeral. “In the next 30 years,” he told a conference of entrepreneurs in Zhengzhou, China, “the world will see more pain than happiness.”

Bloomberg’s report last week quoted Ma as saying that one way to prepare individuals and communities to cope with the internet economy is to change how people are educated and to “establish how to work with robots.”

Ma’s not the only one with such dire warnings. Last January, ManpowerGroup CEO Jonas Prising warned that without “aggressive workforce development,” the gap between those with the right skills (and the ability and resources to gain new ones) and those who don’t will keep widening.

To avoid being made redundant by a robot, people will need to harness their “creativity, emotional intelligence, and cognitive flexibility,” the ManpowerGroup pointed out in “The Skills Report: Digitization and Why Skills and Talent Matter.”

It may not be easy to see the doom while the employment situation remains tolerable. Unemployment in the Philippines stood at an estimated 6.6 percent in January 2017. This was higher than the 5.7 percent reported in January 2016. But the more long-term view shows some progress: in 2007, unemployment was 7.3 percent; in 1997, it was even higher, at 8.8 percent. (It needs to rise much faster for more Filipinos to escape from poverty.)

Many Filipinos who avoided becoming part of the unemployment record, and at the same time earn better pay than they would have here at home, did so by going abroad. Yet working abroad does not necessarily protect them from the disruptions ahead. As of 2015, one in every three overseas Filipino workers was a laborer or unskilled worker, according to official statistics.

If seeking jobs abroad was the biggest change in how Filipinos worked in recent decades, the current challenge comes from the combination of automation and artificial intelligence. “The Skills Report,” which drew from interviews with 18,000 employers in 43 countries, points out that 45 percent of the tasks people do for work each day “could be automated with current technology.” Look for that video released three weeks ago of self-charging orange robots zipping around a warehouse of China’s logistics company Shentong Express, as these sorted packages 30 times faster and with fewer errors than an all-human crew could do. The sight both fascinates and frightens.

Artificial intelligence has a pronounced advantage over humans: computers may be less sophisticated than the human brain, but these can churn through vast amounts of data faster than people can. It can see patterns quicker and are impervious to hunger, drowsiness, and various other forces that can distract the human mind. IBM’s Deep Blue beat the chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov two decades ago simply because it could cycle through potential chess moves faster. It also didn’t have to bear the crippling weight of the chess community’s expectations.

Perhaps within our generation—and almost certainly within that of our children—the world of work will be an increasingly fraught place. We’ll need to figure out what aspects of work machines and artificial intelligence cannot do better, and to build or rebuild our skills along those lines.

What incentives and other levers can be applied to encourage more of the “aggressive workforce development” that present and future workers and entrepreneurs need? We yearn for occupations that mean something, because what we do, what we produce—like it or not—helps define our sense of self. Jack Ma’s challenge is for us to broaden that sense of possibility for as many people as we can reach.
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