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Technology vs Humans


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One key issue of this topic is whether technology will be a good servant or our new master i.e. assist people to do their jobs more efficiently or replace them. In light of several news articles on the more alarmist end (see Background), columnist Lydia Lim instead urges that we take a more complementary view in her opinion piece on the Straits Times.

Here’s our extract (with additional analysis included):

Background (articles published earlier this year)

A common thread: automation and AI are viewed as threats to jobs and human well-being.

Add-on example: Historian Yuval Noah Harari, exemplifies such thinking in his best-selling book “Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind”, describing humans in the future as “superfluous” once we successfully develop “highly intelligent non-conscious algorithms that can do almost everything better”.

Alternative view

(We have deliberately presented the points in the PEEL structure to model how essay paragraphs should look like.)

    • It may not be a zero-sum game for humans and machines.

      Instead of agonising over cost and headcount cuts, we should imagine new ways to bring about growth.  A Harvard Business Review article “Beyond Automation” in 2015 also mirrors this view and suggests that the threat of automation can be “reframed as an opportunity for augmentation”, where there may even be new possibilities for employment.

 

  • Dire forecasts of jobs lost to robots are unhelpful.

    This is because a) such predictions cannot be applied universally.  The impact of technology will differ from place to place, depending on the context and local circumstances.  For example, automation is “much less of a concern for a small, labour-scarce country like Singapore than it is for a large, labour-rich one like China”.

    In addition, b) worries about future unemployment may also be overblown. According to McKinsey Global Institute’s 2017 report “A Future That Works: Automation, Employment And Productivity”, a deficit of human labour is more likely to occur than a surplus, given ageing trends in developing and developed economies. This means that machines are more likely to be used to cover the shortfall in labour rather than to replace humans in their jobs.
  • It is more realistic to project future scenarios where machines take on certain “work activities” rather than whole jobs per se.

    While machines can be more efficient in performing physical activities, and collecting and processing data, they are unable to take on aspects of work that require human capabilities.  The 2017 McKinsey report also estimated that only 5% of occupations can be fully automated.  Hence, a more nuanced picture of the future is one where humans work in tandem with machines – with the latter taking over the more menial aspects of work, more time can be freed up for humans to focus on intrinsically human capabilities that machines cannot yet match.

 

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