AI is taking over millions of jobs in Asia – but it’s not doom and gloom for Singapore

From left: Nobel Laureates Michael Spence, Roger Myerson, Robert Merton and Peter Diamond with UBS’ Kelvin Tay at the UBS auditorium in Singapore.
Jessica Lin / Business Insider

It’s an age-old rhetoric – the machines are coming to steal our livelihoods and there’s nothing we can do about it.

Workers feared the introduction of steam-powered engines at the onset of the industrial revolution in the early 1700s, but the machines people talk about of late are highly precise and incredibly capable robots powered by artificial intelligence (AI).

But the fear of AI, while understandable, is also largely fueled by science fiction and is in many cases more exaggerated than it needs to be.

Theoretically, it could be possible for someone to invent a machine that makes human beings obsolete, but the chance of that happening in reality is extremely remote, Nobel Laureate Roger B. Myerson told a Singapore audience today (Aug 30).

The economist, who received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2007, was speaking at a media-only briefing at the UBS auditorium at One Raffles Quay this afternoon.

Myerson was in town with fellow Nobel Laureate economists, Robert Merton, Michael Spence and Peter A. Diamond, for the “Nobel Perspectives Live!” discussion hosted by UBS for over 1,000 tertiary-level students.

“When I think about AI, it’s important that we develop AI machines that don’t mind being turned off. Human beings do mind being turned off, and human beings can make trouble if they’re desperate. But that’s not an imminent technology, that’s not realistic,” Myerson said.

An April 2017 report titled “How artificial intelligence will transform Asia” published by UBS in April noted that “in the next 30 years, AI will overtake human intelligence,” and added that around 30-50 million jobs in Asia are at risk.

But the report also noted that it “will take a long time for AI to fully replace these jobs”, and Singapore, as a service-driven economy, will be less affected by AI adoption.

While the threat of automation on jobs is primarily a concern to early stage/ late starting developing countries, 2001 prizewinner Spence said that Singapore has its own set of challenges to worry about with regards to job automation.

“Singapore is a very high-income advanced country, so the challenge is to engage in a process whereby over time, you figure out what the composition of jobs and employment is going to look like – you experiment and figure out ways to help young people prepare themselves in terms of creativity, flexibility, continuous learning and a lot of other things that we anticipate are going to be important parts of this,” he said.

It’s also important to keep in mind that AI will help to create many new types of jobs in new industries even as it replaces those in manual manufacturing-based industries.

“I believe that AI in the form that we understand it now is going to be a tool at your disposal and not something that substitutes you. That is, it’ll make you more powerful,” Spence said.

The point is, people are incredibly productive, and the technology that has been developed so far has been used to complement human beings.

Moreover, human beings are not going to allow civilisation to run into a “brick wall” if they see they are approaching one, fellow economist Merton argued.

Referring to the theory of general equilibrium in economics, Merton said that institutions and laws change if there is a need to. In reality, if you see you’re heading toward a wall, you will see a need to do something about it.

“Most of the time, when it becomes really important, you change,” he said.

“We often just hold all the institutions and everything fixed as if they don’t change. These are not things that are set by the laws of nature – we create them… We (human beings) are actually pretty good at changing rules and creating contracts…to solve problems, and we’ve been doing it pretty consistently,” he added.

And besides, “technology by itself can’t solve things,” Merton said.

When asked what the biggest global threat in the future will be, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Diamond did not identify AI as one of them.

Instead, he pointed to climate change (and the large-scale migration it will bring), cybercrime and cyberwars, and bioterrorism and ethical issues associated with learning about biology as the biggest threats.

Still, the discussion on AI has been rather intense, with some of the richest people in the world such as Richard Branson, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg (who themselves are driving the rise of AI) recommending that a universal income be introduced to protect citizens who are bound to lose their jobs.

When asked if there is a need to implement universal income, Diamond emphasised that more experimentation is needed, adding that the knowledge held in this regard is “way premature”.

More studies need to be done for economists and policy makers to “either figure out how to design it or figure out if it will do what we want it to do for the amount of money involved,” he added.