We must face the difficult realities of the robotic age

Updated: 2017-04-03 07:16

(HK Edition)

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Whether we like it or not, robots armed with the latest technology in artificial intelligence are increasingly making their presence felt in our daily lives.

We aren't talking just about the auto-cleaners that promise to sweep our floors clean when we're out at work or play. Most of them don't work very well anyway. Nor are we talking about the huge swinging mechanical arms in auto factories that do most of the heavy lifting, welding and painting chores.

We are talking about thinking robots that are threatening to replace humans in many high-skilled jobs, such as making mobile phones. Robots which can do this kind of intricate work are still very expensive. But wider use will push down their prices and set the robotic revolution on its course.

In Hong Kong, automation cannot be blamed for the loss of manufacturing jobs. The city has every right to congratulate itself for making the almost seamless transition to a service economy, absorbing most, if not all, workers displaced after the wholesale exodus of industry to Shenzhen in the 1980s.

We must face the difficult realities of the robotic age

But many of those services sector jobs can be taken over more cost-effectively by robots in the not too distant future. Workers displaced then would have little chance of finding alternative employment, making it necessary for the government to start thinking now of ways to equitably distribute wealth created more efficiently by robots to all Hong Kong people, including the growing number of unemployed.

Many scientists and economists are predicting that some robots will be intelligent enough to take over many professional jobs in medicine, law, accounting and banking. In his farewell address in January, former US president Barack Obama warned that "the next wave of economic dislocations will come from the relentless pace of automation that make a lot of good middle-class jobs obsolete".

Before we go to the clinic to be treated by Dr Robot, we should already have a good idea of the capability of cyborgs. Autonomous cars are actually robots on wheels; they are expected to be in common use in the not-too-distant future. Nearly all the major car manufacturers in the world are competing with technology firms in the development of these machines which are showing great promise in road tests.

Some of the major online stores, including Amazon in the United States and Rakuten in Japan, are in the final stages of experimenting with making deliveries with drones. Scientists have predicted that robots will be so common that every home will have one to do the household chores.

What doesn't sound so good is the predictions by some scientists that robots will take over most jobs from people within 30 years. A professor in computational engineering, Moshe Vardi of Rice University, is quoted to have said at a forum last year that "we are approaching a time when machines will be able to outperform humans at almost any task."

To be sure, robots have yet to replace humans on a scale that can be described as dislocating economically and socially. But a breakthrough in robotic technology can happen any time.

When this happens, people working in economies like Hong Kong which does not have a comprehensive social safety net, will take a particularly hard blow. Indeed, few economies have systems in place to cope with massive decreases in employment in a future robotic age as envisaged by scientists.

The widespread use of robots in manufacturing and other areas can conceivably lead to rapid productivity gains. In many developed economies, government policies and strong labor organizations had helped ensure that workers were getting a share of the corporate profits arising from productivity gains.

But the system seems to have fallen apart as indicated by the persistent high unemployment rates in some developed economies and years of wage stagnation. The average take-home pay of workers in the US, for instance, has fallen in real terms in recent years.

As a result, the income gaps in many developed economies, particularly Hong Kong, have continued to widen. Politicians and labor activists in some developed economies have conveniently laid the blame on globalization which, they claim, has allowed the outflow of jobs to low-cost manufacturing countries in Latin America and Asia.

There are those who argue that the greater threat to employment is the increased use of robots in the work place, replacing human workers not only in low paying jobs but also those requiring a higher level of skill. Soon, more and more white-collar jobs will also be taken over by robots.

The trend that marks the robotic age is irreversible, scientists said. And the pace of change is going to quicken as the technology of artificial intelligence continues to mature.

In Hong Kong, which has nearly HK$1 trillion in government fiscal reserves, the debate on something as basic as a universal pension fund has dragged on for many years without any signs yet of reaching a compromise. Meanwhile, some smaller economies in Europe have already begun testing the idea of a universal minimum wage for every citizen.

The biggest challenge of the robotic age is the fair distribution of wealth amassed through rapid productivity gains. Politicians, business and union leaders will have to work together rather than fighting each other (as they do so often in Hong Kong) to meet this difficult challenge.

The author is a veteran current affairs commentator.

(HK Edition 04/03/2017 page7)