I just finished reading the book The Wealth of Humans: Work, Power, and Status in the 21st Century by American journalist Ryan Avent. It took me 10 months to finish the book. My son who gave me the book as a Christmas gift in 2017 was shocked to find out around the third week of October that I have not finished reading the book yet. The excuse I gave him was that the book was quite heavy. Avent admitted in the epilogue that his book is rather gloomy at parts. The Wealth of Humans will probably go down my personal history as the book that took me longest to finish reading.
So what caused the heaviness and gloominess while reading the book? Avent has successfully painted a picture in my head of how the future looks like once artificial intelligence (AI) is widely used in retail, manufacturing, outsourcing, food, and other industries. It is not a beautiful picture at all. Just imagine millions of people losing their jobs to robots.
While I agree with Avent that the digital revolution is very much like the industrial revolution when he wrote “the experience of the industrial revolution tells us that society must go through a period of wrenching political change before it can agree on a broadly acceptable social system for sharing the fruits of this new technological world,” I am still highly skeptical about whether we can overcome the extremely painful transition unscathed. The industrial revolution was somewhat contained in the manufacturing sector. AI is different, because it can be applied to virtually any industry.
When AI reaches the level of development that it can already understand language, recognize patterns, solve problems, associate the correct emotion to a particular situation, and can feel or touch, disruption will not be contained. Imagine AI being able to diagnose disease and prescribe medications, address lawsuits, conduct research, and write an article. AI is already able to do all of these. One can argue that AI-enabled technology is inept in capturing the emotions and judgement humans are capable of feeling and doing. Contrary to this argument, I have watched an episode of the TV Show “Ancient Alien” at History Channel that showcased all the current developments in AI, which covers all of these.
AI will require more than what humans did during the industrial revolution. Transformation that requires a great shift in human mindset and leaving behind a whole lot of things we are so used to always doing espouses a great deal of anxiety and fear, which is very much founded. The McKinsey Global Institute insinuates that, by 2030, intelligent agents and robots could eliminate as much as 30 percent of the world’s workforce. McKinsey suggests that, in terms of scale, the automation revolution could rival the move away from agricultural labor during the 1900s in the United States and Europe and, more recently, the explosion of the Chinese labor economy. This means that around 400 to 800 million jobholders need to be redeployed, as they will be replaced by robo-employees. We will be lucky if this will not translate into chaos.
As early as now, we need to start redefining, enriching, or redesigning jobs to lessen the blow. One thing is for sure: AI will take on repetitive and mundane tasks. The good side of this is that we will be freed up for other activities. Our free time can be used to create a symbiosis with AI. This symbiotic existence is practically unknown and unchartered territory at this time. It will require reinvestment and reinvention. Mike Rollings, research vice president at Gartner, said, “rather than have a machine replicating the steps that a human performs to reach a particular judgment, the entire decision process can be refactored to use the relative strengths and weaknesses of both machine and human to maximize value generation and redistribute decision making to increase agility.”
Amid all anxieties and fears, it is comforting to think that the history of humanity will show that every technological shift has resulted in more jobs being created than destroyed. When a labor cost-cutting device is put in place to automate a task, it results in efficiency and effectiveness and, in turn, it will require more humans to do other tasks to maintain such efficiency and effectiveness. The Wall Street’s commentary on The Robots Are Coming. Welcome Them, says that “simply put, jobs that robots can replace are not good jobs in the first place. As humans, we climb up the rungs of drudgery — physically tasking or mind-numbing jobs — to jobs that use what got us to the top of the food chain, our brains.”
The transition brought about by AI will be very painful and borderline chaotic. It is a no brainer that rising unemployment has a negative impact on society. We do not expect unemployed individuals to do volunteer work. Those who are not working might end up committing crime to survive. Anyone pushed against the wall can only take so much and might end up abusing illegal drugs to be able to forget. Unemployment, high crime rate, drug abuse, and withdrawal from society are all correlated.
Resiliency is one of the traits humans have continuously improved on throughout the history of humanity. There is no doubt we will surpass this revolution if we start preparing now.
Obet Cruz is a Senior Managing Consultant of Advisory Services. P&A Grant Thornton is one of the leading Audit, Tax, Advisory, and Outsourcing firms in the Philippines, with 21 Partners and over 900 staff members. We’d like to hear from you! Tweet us: @PAGrantThornton, like us on Facebook: P&A Grant Thornton, and email your comments to Obet.firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. For more information, visit our Website: www.grantthornton.com.ph.
As published in The Manila Times, dated 12 December 2018