The year is 2040. Drones buzz over neighbourhoods, delivering packages. Smart homes, with interconnected Wi-Fi devices, eliminate the need for housework. Driverless vehicles take us from A to B at great speed. Wars are still fought but digitally, with lines of code and armies of robots. We vacation in space, and share stories about the moon.
In this intelligent machine age, what role will we play? Some reports, examining the implications of the digital revolution for labour markets, are forecasting a bleak future.
The concerns relate to the potential for labour displacement, as systems of artificial intelligence and automation gain increasing traction in the workplace. As these systems evolve and become ever more sophisticated, the argument goes that they will be able to outperform humans, offering greater degrees of precision, efficiency, competitiveness and reliability. Over time, a larger share of our operations is likely to be outsourced to machines.
Does this hypothesis have merit? Will capital soon no longer be able to cohabit in harmony with labour? Should we be concerned about the prospect of mass ‘technological unemployment’?
The man vs. machine debate is centuries-old. John Maynard Keynes first popularised the term ‘technological unemployment’ in his 1930 essay Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren. Keynes regarded the phenomenon as a “temporary phase of maladjustment” for countries at the frontier of progress. On the other side of the debate, techno-pessimists, such as the classical economist, David Ricardo, instead, believed that the introduction of new technologies could lead to a sustained decline of the working population.
To understand which argument aligns better with today’s technological and labour market landscape, let’s consider some recent developments.
It is undeniable that the world and our role within it is rapidly changing. Just look at the staggering developments taking place in the transportation sector. In the Jetsons, an animated sitcom which first aired six decades ago, the inhabitants of an imaginary future commuted to work in flying cars. Today, we are on the brink of turning that vision into reality. UBER has plans to establish an aerial taxi service by 2023, and other companies have already developed flying car prototypes. Many projects under development today weren’t even anticipated by the science fiction of the past. For instance, Elon Musk, the man behind both Tesla and SpaceX, is building an underground network of tunnels that run many layers deep across the eastern United States, to transport cars and alleviate congestion challenges. In addition, in several countries, driverless cars are currently being tested. Automakers anticipate that fully-autonomous vehicles will be chauffeuring us around within the next three years.
These are just a small selection of the numerous examples of comprehensive transformation taking place today. But will we really benefit from such change? We have to wonder whether there is some irrational exuberance.
The long view of innovation, however, provides good reason for optimism. During each era of revolutionary change, innovation has lifted productivity, reduced the prices of goods and services, created new industries, stimulated output and generated fresh employment opportunities.
The first industrial revolution brought with it the power of steam and machine-based manufacturing. The new industries and jobs it generated more than offset the displacement of skilled workers producing hand-made goods. The advent of the automobile in the 19th century did the same, relative to the jobs that were lost from the horse and carriage economy. More recently, the silicon revolution gave us the power of computing, and the internet. These technologies created new businesses, tore down geographical barriers and massively disrupted the ways in which we interact. Like those that preceded it, the silicon revolution, generated far more jobs than were lost, for example in basic administrative operations.
In other words, the available body of empirical evidence indicates that short-term labour displacement, arising from technological change, has always been more than offset by the expansion of labour markets in the long-term. There is also some evidence of a similar pattern taking shape today. Since the global financial crisis the rate of unemployment has fallen sharply, and the main reason behind this decline has been very strong rates of new job creation. In the UK, technology has recently contributed to the loss of 800,000 jobs but has helped to create at least 3.5 million jobs. Each of these jobs is paying, on average, almost £10,000 more per annum compared to those that have been lost. Business sentiment, additionally, remains largely positive regarding the impact of technology on labour markets. A recent survey, undertaken by KPMG, of chief executive officers (CEOs) in the UK, reveals that seventy-one per cent believe that artificial intelligence will create more jobs than it destroys.
OK, let’s pause for a bit.
The past is not always a reliable indicator of the future. So could this time be different? There is reason to think so. Technological change is progressing at an unprecedented rate. New advancements are taking place almost daily, and their diffusion into the workplace is accelerating.
Last year, over 40 per cent of adults in the UK managed their bank accounts using smartphones. Within the next five years, this figure is projected to rise to 70 per cent, reflecting increasing numbers of mobile users in rural areas. By that time, analysts believe that customers will only visit their bank only twice a year. These trends have driven a heavy consolidation of banks around the world. In 2017, major UK banks shut, or announced plans to shut, nearly 1,000 branches. Thousands of jobs have already been lost.
A shift to driverless vehicles, likewise, could impact significant numbers of people, from lorry drivers to bus drivers to the various constituents of the gig economy. In the UK alone, over a half million people are currently employed in road transportation. Relative to earlier anxieties regarding the potential of systems like UBER to reduce jobs for ‘black cab’ drivers, these new developments surely provide greater grounds for unease.
Workers in the fast food industry could also be at risk, owing to technologies that enable self-service. McDonald’s, for instance, recently piloted “create your taste” touchscreens in its US-based restaurants. Through this system, customers could craft their own burger, and place orders at the touch of a button. The need for human interaction was eliminated. In America alone, almost 4 million people are currently employed in fast food restaurants.
Even recruiters are finding themselves threatened. Based on social media activity, work tenure, and purchasing history, algorithms can now predict when someone will be ready for a job. Text analysis can identify skills and experience many times faster than humans can. As a result, some estimates are giving the existing HR recruitment industry two to four years more at best. Hiring, for now, will still require a human touch. But that may change over time too. It is not implausible to imagine software capable of assessing personality, which scrutinises candidates on factors such as tone, facial movements and body language.
The list of impacted industries goes on and on and on. All are in the same boat.
So was Keynes right, or was Ricardo? Before we jump to conclusions regarding the nature of the relationship between technological innovation and labour markets, let’s try a little thought experiment. Take it as given that, in line with empirical evidence, the disruption being observed in labour markets today will in the future be overshadowed by an expansion in output and jobs. That being the case, would you be prepared to forego your employment now to enable a higher standard of living for your children and your grandchildren tomorrow?
If the evidence checks out, then our view on technology and the value of innovation really boils down to this one question.
Asia Needs a Region-Wide Approach to Harness Fintech’s Full Potential
Asia’s policy makers should strengthen cooperation to harness the potential of new financial technologies for inclusive growth. At the same time, they should work together to ensure they can respond better to the challenges posed by fintech.
New technologies such as mobile banking, big data, and peer-to-peer transfer networks are already extending the reach of financial services to those who were previously unbanked or out of reach, boosting incomes and living standards. Yet, fintech also comes with the risk of cyber fraud, data security, and privacy breaches. Disintermediation of fintech services or concentration of services among a few providers could also pose a risk to financial stability.
These and other issues were discussed at the High-Level Policy Dialogue on Regional Cooperation to Support Innovation, Inclusion, and Stability in Asia, organized by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), Bank Indonesia, and the ASEAN+3 Macroeconomic Research Office (AMRO).
The panel comprised Ms. Neav Chanthana, Deputy Governor of the National Bank of Cambodia; Mr. Diwa Guinigundo, Deputy Governor of Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas; Ms. Mary Ellen Iskenderian, President and Chief Executive Officer of Women’s World Banking; Mr. Ravi Menon, Managing Director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore; Mr. Takehiko Nakao, President of ADB; Mr. Abdul Rasheed, Deputy Governor, Bank Negara Malaysia, and Mr. Veerathai Santiprabhob, Governor of the Bank of Thailand. Mr. Mirza Adityaswara, Senior Deputy Governor of Bank Indonesia, gave the opening remarks at the conference and Ms. Junhong Chang, Director of AMRO, gave the welcome remarks.
“Rapidly spreading new financial technologies hold huge promise for financial inclusion,” said Mr. Nakao. “We must foster an enabling environment for the technologies to flourish and strengthen regional cooperation to build harmonized regulatory standards and surveillance systems to prevent international money laundering, terrorism financing, and cybercrimes.”
“Technology is an enabler that weaves our economies and financial systems together, transmitting benefits but also risks across borders,” said Ms. Chang. “Given East Asia’s rapid economic growth, understanding and managing the impact of technology in our financial systems is essential for policymakers to maintain financial stability.”
“Asia, including Indonesia, is an ideal place for fintech to flourish,” said Mr. Adityaswara. “In Indonesia’s case, there are more than a quarter of a billion people living on thousand of islands, waiting to be integrated with the new technology; young people eager to enter the future digital world; more than fifty million small and medium-sized enterprises which can’t wait to get on board with e-commerce; a new society driven by a dynamic, democratic middle class which views the digital economy as something as inevitable as evolution.”
Despite Asia’s high economic growth in recent years, the financial sector is still under-developed in some countries. Fewer than 27% of adults in developing Asia have a bank account, well below the global median of 38%. Meanwhile, just 84% of firms have a checking or savings account, on a par with Africa but below Latin America’s 89% and emerging Europe’s 92%.
Financial inclusion could be increased through policies to promote financial innovation, by boosting financial literacy, and by expanding and upgrading digital infrastructure and networks. Regulations to prevent illegal activities, enhance cyber security, and protect consumers’ rights and privacy, would also build confidence in new financial technologies.
Cutting-edge tech a ‘double-edged sword for developing countries’
The latest technological advances, from artificial intelligence to electric cars, can be a “double-edged sword”, says the latest UN World Economic and Social Survey (WESS 2018), released on Monday.
The over-riding message of the report is that appropriate, effective policies are essential, if so-called “frontier technologies” are to change the world for the better, helping us to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and addressing climate change: without good policy, they risk exacerbating existing inequality.
Amongst several positive indicators, WESS 2018 found that the energy sector is becoming more sustainable, with renewable energy technology and efficient energy storage systems giving countries the opportunity to “leapfrog” existing, often fossil fuel-based solutions.
The wellbeing of the most vulnerable is being enhanced through greater access to medicines, and millions in developing countries now have access to low-cost financial services via their mobile phones.
Referring to the report, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that “good health and longevity, prosperity for all and environmental sustainability are within our reach if we harness the full power of these innovations.”
However, the UN chief warned of the importance of properly managing the use of new technologies, to ensure there is a net benefit to society: the report demonstrates that unmanaged implementation of developments such as artificial intelligence and automation can improve efficiency but also destroy quality jobs.
“Clearly, we need policies that can ensure frontier technologies are not only commercially viable but also equitable and ethical. This will require a rigorous, objective and transparent ongoing assessment, involving all stakeholders,” Mr. Guterres added
The Survey says that proactive and effective policies can help countries to avoid pitfalls and minimize the economic and social costs of technology-related disruption. It calls for regulation and institutions that promote innovation, and the use of new technologies for sustainable development.
With digital technology frequently crossing borders, international cooperation, the Survey shows, is needed to bring about harmonized standards, greater flexibility in the area of intellectual property rights and ensuring that the market does not remain dominated by a tiny number of extremely powerful companies.
Here, the UN has a vital role to play, by providing an objective assessment of the impact that emerging technologies have on sustainable development outcomes – including their effects on employment, wages and income distribution – and bringing together people, business and organizations from across the world to build strong consensus-led agreements.
Our Trust Deficit with Artifical Intelligence Has Only Just Started
“We suffer from a bad case of trust-deficit disorder,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres in his recent General Assembly speech. His diagnosis is right, and his focus on new technological developments underscores their crucial role shaping the future global political order. Indeed, artificial intelligence (AI) is poised to deepen the trust-deficit across the world.
The Secretary-General, echoing his recently released Strategy on New Technologies, repeatedly referenced rapidly developing fields of technology in his speech, rightly calling for greater cooperation between countries and among stakeholders, as well as for more diversity in the technology sector. His trust-deficit diagnosis reflects the urgent need to build a new social license and develop incentives to ensure that technological innovation, in particular AI, is deployed safely and aligned with the public interest.
However, AI-driven technologies do not easily fit into today’s models of international cooperation, and will in fact tend to undermine rather than enforce global governance mechanisms. Looking at three trends in AI, the UN faces an enormous set of interrelated challenges.
AI and Reality
First, AI is a potentially dominating technology whose powerful – both positive and negative –implications will be increasingly difficult to isolate and contain. Engineers design learning algorithms with a specific set of predictive and optimizing functions that can be used to both empower or control populations. Without sophisticated fail-safe protocols, the potential for misuse or weaponization of AI is pervasive and can be difficult to anticipate.
Take Deepfake as an example. Sophisticated AI programs can now manipulate sounds, images and videos, creating impersonations that are often impossible to distinguish from the original. Deep-learning algorithms can, with surprising accuracy, read human lips, synthetize speech, and to some extent simulate facial expressions. Once released outside of the lab, such simulations could easily be misused with wide-ranging impacts (indeed, this is already happening at a low level). On the eve of an election, Deepfake videos could falsely portray public officials being involved in money-laundering or human rights abuses; public panic could be sowed by videos warning of non-existent epidemics or cyberattacks; forged incidents could potentially lead to international escalation.
The capacity of a range of actors to influence public opinion with misleading simulations could have powerful long-term implications for the UN’s role in peace and security. By eroding the sense of trust and truth between citizens and the state—and indeed amongst states—truly fake news could be deeply corrosive to our global governance system.
AI Reading Us
Second, AI is already connecting and converging with a range of other technologies—including biotech—with significant implications for global security. AI systems around the world are trained to predict various aspects of our daily lives by making sense of massive data sets, such as cities’ traffic patterns, financial markets, consumer behaviour trend data, health records and even our genomes.
These AI technologies are increasingly able to harness our behavioural and biological data in innovative and often manipulative ways, with implications for all of us. For example, the My Friend Cayla smart doll sends voice and emotion data of the children who play with it to the cloud, which led to a US Federal Trade Commission complaint and its ban in Germany. In the US, emotional analysis is already being used in the courtroom to detect remorse in deposition videos. It could soon be part of job interviews to assess candidates’ responses and their fitness for a job.
The ability of AI to intrude upon—and potentially control—private human behaviour has direct implications for the UN’s human rights agenda. New forms of social and bio-control could in fact require a reimagining of the framework currently in place to monitor and implement the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and will certainly require the multilateral system to better anticipate and understand this quickly emerging field.
AI as a Conflict Theatre
Finally, the ability of AI-driven technologies to influence large populations is of such immediate and overriding value that it is almost certain to be the theatre for future conflicts. There is a very real prospect of a “cyber race” in which powerful nations and large technology platforms enter into open competition for our collective data as the fuel to generate economic, medical and security supremacy across the globe. Forms of “cyber-colonization” are increasingly likely, as powerful states are able to harness AI and biotech together to understand and potentially control other countries’ populations and ecosystems.
Towards Global Governance of AI
Politically, legally and ethically, our societies are not prepared for the deployment of AI. The UN, established many decades before the emergence of these technologies, is in many ways poorly placed to develop the kind of responsible governance that will channel AI’s potential away from these risks and towards our collective safety and wellbeing. In fact, the resurgence of nationalist agendas across the world may point to a dwindling capacity of the multilateral system to play a meaningful role in the global governance of AI. Major corporations and powerful member states may see little value in bringing multilateral approaches to bear on what they consider lucrative and proprietary technologies.
There are, however, some important ways in which the UN can help build the kind of collaborative, transparent networks that may begin to treat our “trust-deficit disorder.” The Secretary-General’s recently-launched High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation, is already working to build a collaborative partnership with the private sector and establish a common approach to new technologies. Such an initiative could eventually find ways to reward cooperation over competition, and to put in place common commitments to using AI-driven technologies for the public good.
Perhaps the most important challenge for the UN in this context is one of relevance, of re-establishing a sense of trust in the multilateral system. But if the above trends tell us anything, it is that AI-driven technologies are an issue for every individual and every state, and that without collective, collaborative forms of governance, there is a real risk that it will be a force that undermines global stability.
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