Automation does not spell end of employment

I share some of Dr Leon Vanstone's concerns over how technology will lead to the displacement of workers in a number of industries ("In a driverless future, what happens to today's drivers?"; Jan 17).

However, his assessment is overly pessimistic.

First, the merits of driverless vehicles are readily apparent. They provide convenience through the automation of an otherwise mundane activity.

With widespread adoption and networking, such vehicles can mitigate the traffic snarls that now drain economic productivity.

Most importantly, they greatly enhance safety - computers and sensors can detect and respond to changing road conditions far better than human drivers.

These advantages more than justify continued investment in their development.

Second, automation cannot be universally applied in all areas of employment. Although we might be able to develop robots that work in retail, they will never be able to fully replicate the human touch of good service.

Teaching software is ill-suited for the qualitative, intangible and aspirational aspects of education.

Similarly, robot doctors will inevitably lack compassion and authentic bedside manners.

The value of human workers lies in their capacity for emotion, innovation and abstraction. Where such traits are integral to that particular field, there will always be a place for humans.

We must also consider that automation is expensive. This is especially pertinent to less economically developed countries.

Since human labour in these countries is more readily available, easier to maintain and replace, and far cheaper than machinery, modernisation of agriculture has proceeded at a snail's pace. It is unlikely to accelerate in the foreseeable future, given booming birth rates, entrenched business practices, and cultural momentum.

This makes the problem of automation-induced job shortages considerably less urgent for emerging economies.

Thus, developed nations will bear the brunt of job losses brought about by robotics and computers. However, it is also these affluent states that have the resources to nip the problem in the bud.

Governments must ramp up investment in skills retraining, perhaps through a tripartite structure such as that employed in Singapore. School curricula should be modified such that children possess the skills needed to excel in a post-automation economy.

Just as in previous industrial revolutions, automation does not mean the end of employment.

Paul Chan Poh Hoi

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 07, 2016, with the headline 'Automation does not spell end of employment'. Print Edition | Subscribe