This article was originally published with The Manila Times on December 6, 2018.
Today I continue the discussion on the future of jobs as impacted by the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) or machine learning. This was a topic of discussion in the 2018 Asia Global Dialogue held in the University of Hong Kong, as well as the crux of a presentation I gave to members of the Economics Organization of De La Salle University.
Each time I discuss this concept, I always prefer to emphasize the fact that now we have the fastest developments of technology in history. Each decade saw the rise of a major advancement – 1970s and the mainframe computer, 1980s and personal computing, 1990s and the internet. Since the millennium however, major innovations have arisen in leaps and bounds, with smartphones, cloud computing, big data, AI, and blockchain, to name a few.
The million-dollar question that many debate is how will AI impact the jobs market as we know it. Previously, many said that AI can never replace jobs that require an actual physical human being. I believe that notion is no longer a safe assumption.
A few weeks ago, Xinhua, the Chinese State News Agency, introduced the world to two new newscasters, both completely AI. They looked real enough, spoke well, and could easily pass for an actual person. Although there seemed to be more room for improvement, the point was clearly made–that this was an automatable job function.
Neurality, a company owned by a friend, generates chatbots for company Facebook profiles. He mentioned once they developed AI for one such company to answer simple queries online, such as opening hours, branch locations, etc., training the AI in English. After numerous real-world communications and exposure to Filipino Tagalog-English vernacular, the AI began to learn, and eventually understood the Tagalog phrases in order to answer the customer’s queries successfully.
As part of the AsiaGlobal Fellows Program, one of our seminars included one regarding AI. A recorded conversation was played, where the caller, representing the bank, rang a customer to remind her of an outstanding loan. The customer was somewhat defensive – even borderline rude – cutting off the caller, and loudly giving excuses as to why she has been unable to pay (she claimed her boss had not yet paid her). The caller then responded, reminding her to settle the account by a certain day in order to avoid penalties, and wished the customer luck in dealing with her boss.
The caller spoke clearly, paused when interrupted, responded to the customer’s statements, and was completely AI.
That particular development should hit home for us in the Philippines. The call center or BPO industry employs around 1.3 million Filipinos in more than 500 companies, generating $23 billion in revenues – comprising approximately seven percent of the country’s GDP.
In an OECD study, food preparation, construction, and cleaning are jobs with the highest risk of automation. This again should hit close to home for us. From my time at the Office of the Vice President, we dealt with many OFW concerns across the globe. I recall that at least one million OFWs work in Saudi Arabia alone, with many working as household service workers and construction workers. In Hong Kong, approximately 300,000 Filipinos comprise 30 percent of the minority population, with a large number working in households.
Should we be afraid? I think not. Fear will do us no good. Better yet, we should understand, be more knowledgeable, and be prepared.
Numerous studies show that AI will not replace entire jobs, but rather, automate job tasks and functions.
We should take note of that fact, and identify which functions may be susceptible to automation. Various studies identify a myriad of jobs at risk, but what is glaring among them is how easily automatable those jobs are in the first place.
How can humans compete with AI? By embracing our human nature and creating value in it.
First, and perhaps the hardest, is to get out of our comfort zones. Go out, explore, and learn as you go. When abroad, immerse oneself with different people and their cultures. My one year in China has helped me in acquiring and dealing with Chinese businesses because it is easier when we understand each other, language wise and in terms of business culture.
Second, we need to develop new skills, especially those that require a special human touch, such as leadership and people management, negotiation and dispute resolution skills, strengthen emotional intelligence and empathy, provide value through added services or experiences, among others. AI can tell us how best to do things, but to manage people to reach that goal, is something only people can do.
A final word — we need to keep learning. It doesn’t matter if one gains skills through experience, formal education, or free webinars. What matters is that we are constantly learning, ever improving ourselves. AI, like the technology of the first industrial revolution, is supposed to take over tedious and tiresome functions, allowing people to engage in newer methods and processes.
The author is the Founder and CEO of Caucus, Inc., a multi-industry, multi-disciplinary management consultancy firm. He graduated MBA (De La Salle University), Juris Doctor (Far Eastern University), and LLM in International Commercial Law (University of Nottingham, United Kingdom). He also studied Mandarin Chinese Language and Culture in Fuzhou, China, was a Chevening-HSBC UK Government Scholar, a Confucius Institute Scholar, an alumnus of the US State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program, and a Fellow of the Asia Global Institute – University of Hong Kong. The author may be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.