Is Thailand preparing for the AI assault?: The Nation columnist

Motorbikes and cars wait at a red light in Bangkok, Thailand, on Sept 1, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK (THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Do you remember the scene in the iconic film The Graduate where the man he will soon cuckold pulls Dustin Hoffman aside to offer career advice? "Plastics," the guy whispers. "Plastics."

Today in Thailand, the voice does not whisper.

It shouts, "Artificial intelligence".

Think twice about taking the device lest you, like the whisperer, get cuckolded, too.

Artificial intelligence (AI) - programming that permits computers to learn, to combine big data with human-like intuition - and robots - combinations of sophisticated sensors and AI able to accomplish highly complex tasks - are the future.

They are the steam engines of the biggest industrial revolution since 1800.

Not surprisingly, every country wants its own AI and robots.

Imagine the benefits! Imagine the savings from automating Thailand's auto, auto parts, electronics, bottling and food processing plants. Imagine the savings in an automated Bangkok: driverless trains, buses, trucks, taxis - and intelligent traffic control.

The savings rapidly mount into billions of baht. Much more important, the machines do not make mistakes, get drunk, ask for tea money.

Costs less. Works better.

Who would not embrace such a brilliant future?

Well, that is the issue. No one is thinking about the free lunch problem.

Few people grasp the awesomeness of the AI revolution. For most people, robots are cute and harmless. They look like R2D2 or like, well, us. They serve drinks, fetch things, talk funny.


To the extent that anyone thinks about AI and robots, it is to express concern they will hurt "them" - meaning the uneducated and unskilled.


Technological revolutions produce winners and losers, each one fewer winners, and more and more concentrated losers. As the knowledge and skill requirements of being a winner have risen, upward mobility has slowed; whole regions have died. Consider, for example, Detroit, US, one time "Motor City" of the world, now home to tens of thousands of unemployed autoworkers, unemployable since the automation of American auto factories.

Past technological revolutions have shaped the workplace as a socially stratified system. Workers - defined by their lack of skills and education - did the work. Changing technologies could slam workers' lives, but made managers more secure. A coal miner might be a coal miner, but an accountant at a coalmine could as easily be an accountant in any other industry anywhere. Since 1800, therefore, we have seen radical changes for workers, but the steady growth of a wealthier, more stable managerial and professional class.

AI and robots are about to destroy this stable, professional class.


Because AI and robots are fundamentally different from previous technologies. They are democratic.

Initially, AI and robots will perform as expected - hurt "them", not "us". The low-hanging fruit of automation is, after all, bottling and canning - low wage, unskilled jobs for the uneducated.

There is little money in low-hanging fruit. The more valuable the product, the greater the return on automation. Why invest in automation to replace low wage labour in a low wage economy like Thailand? The real key is that the more valuable the product, the more important are its quality and reliability. Investments in AI and robots are investments not just in cost savings, but also in quality and reliability.

So where next?

In Thailand, the early adopters will be multinational corporations and Thai companies exposed to international competition - a big problem. In Thailand, good jobs at such companies are open exclusively to top graduates and the privileged classes.

What happens when these jobs are automated out of existence?

What happens when AI and robots eliminate the futures of the children of many in the professional and political classes?

For context, think in terms of Thailand's current push for medical tourism. The government deems this area so important to future growth that it is offering bonuses to top doctors if they will move to private hospitals.


In global competition for medical tourism dollars, we measure hospitals by their Board-certified doctor count. Why?

Take radiology. Why do hospitals pay board-certified radiologists huge salaries? Because they are necessary to read the X-rays, CAT, MRI and PET scans that are essential diagnostic tools in modern medicine, and to direct such cutting edge tools as gamma knives. Because it takes more than a decade and lots of money to train a specialist radiologist. Because a patient's life may be at stake in every scan reading and every cut. And because in every case, if the radiologist makes a mistake, the financial and reputational costs to the hospital are unimaginable.

The problem is that AI reads scans better than do most radiologists and robots may soon operate better.

This story generalises across the hospital. There is a clear bottom line: If your aim is to make Thailand a cost, quality, reliability and safety leader in global medical services, AI and robots are the way to go. If your aim is to make medical services a leading international economic sector and foreign exchange earner, AI and robots are for you.

But. But. But.

What will you do when you erase all that income? These specialists start at Bt250,000 (10,158) per month. If you eliminate most of them, whose spending will drive the economy?

What will you do to contain the fury within the professional classes when they lose their jobs? When their children face jobless futures?

What will universities teach? What career opportunities will they offer?

In the US, experts predict that 47 per cent of all jobs - all work as we know it today - will soon disappear. Not just unskilled jobs. Not just factory jobs. All work. (If you are interested to know how likely you would be to lose your if you worked in the US, you can ask at Will Robots Take My Job?.com)

At least the US will reap the benefits of writing the AI code and designing the robots, and of the jobs in associated knowledge- and skill-intensive industries. Thailand, however, will be a consumer, not a creator, of AI and robots. It will not reap high-end benefits, but risks losing high-end jobs and unexpected political consequences from the destabilising impact of AI on the lives of the country's now secure political and economic elite.

These observations raise three questions: Is it realistic to hope that the education system can educate a generation capable of making Thailand into an AI power? If not, is encouraging rapid, seemingly unplanned adoption of AI and robots in Thailand's best interest? Is anyone considering what AI might do for Thailand's political future?

The writer is director of the Warm Heart Foundation, based in A Phrao, Chiang Mai.

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