Consider consequences of an AI revolution

A telepresence robot, Edgar, in a showcase at the Nanyang Technological University's (NTU) demonstration of artificial intelligence press conference.
A telepresence robot, Edgar, in a showcase at the Nanyang Technological University's (NTU) demonstration of artificial intelligence press conference. PHOTO: ST FILE

We cannot underestimate the impact that the robotics revolution might have on socio-economic structures ("Singapore eyes a slice of the AI pie"; April 20).

Many jobs have already been displaced and, as technology continues to improve in capability and cost-efficiency, countless more positions might well be made redundant in the coming years.

This upheaval is likely to be widespread, given the growing number of applications for robotics and computers in sectors as diverse as transport, financial services, and even software design.

Oxford University researchers have estimated that 35 per cent of current jobs in Britain might be replaced through automation in the next 20 years.

Other experts predict, with some confidence, that artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics will, in the long run, eliminate more jobs than they create.

This does not bode well for other similarly advanced economies, such as Singapore.

However, these substantial job losses from an AI revolution must be weighed against economic losses from stiff competition.

As powerhouses such as Japan and the United States race to gain a foothold in this nascent industry, Singapore cannot afford to be left behind.

But it is not all gloom. Automatons and AI continue to face one fundamental weakness - software may be able to learn, but it cannot satisfactorily approximate human spontaneity and irrationality.

This makes robots ill suited to the warmth, empathy and emotive dynamism that are crucial in jobs that require customer interaction, and also rules them out of creative enterprises.

Researchers have attempted to program AI to write stories and poems, but the results have fallen far short of human literature, with little indication of forthcoming improvement.

This suggests that some industries will, for quite some time, remain safe havens for human employment.

Taking all of these risks into account, grabbing a slice of the AI pie demands rigorous and holistic public policy that considers and addresses not only the AI industry itself, but also the many externalities that it would create, for better or for worse.

Paul Chan Poh Hoi

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 06, 2016, with the headline 'Consider consequences of an AI revolution'. Print Edition | Subscribe