Humans unlikely to hit 'kill switch' on robots

I do not share the optimism of some writers with respect to the forthcoming automation revolution (Ample time for humans to 'kill' a robot takeover, by Ms Maria Loh Mun Foong, and AI aims to assist humans, not replace them, by Mr Edmund Khoo Kim Hock; both published on May 14).

The fact of the matter is that these new technologies are being developed with the express purpose of completely replacing, rather than simply complementing, human labour.

In contrast to previous advances in industrial capability, the advent of robots and artificial intelligence (AI) is forecast to displace more jobs than it creates.

Traditional blue-collar jobs will disappear, while many industries that are large employers, particularly manufacturing and transportation, are expected to shrink.

Professionals are not entirely immune either, as AI has demonstrated immense potential in demanding fields such as fund management, big data trend analysis and front-line customer service.

It is for precisely this reason that many leading economists have expressed profound alarm.

Even in the face of these stark economic prospects, it is unlikely that humans will have the "wherewithal to intervene before the situation gets out of hand".

The push for automation is backed by profit-driven companies wishing to minimise operating costs and maximise productive output, as well as governments seeking to gain a national comparative advantage.

When dollars and cents are on the line, the moral imperative to exercise restraint is undoubtedly weakened.

Imposing an onerous robot tax to artificially maintain human employment would be comparable to the actions of post-industrial nations in the 1980s sinking funds into sunset "zombie industries" - the end result is likely to be diminished economic competitiveness, greater waste and, in the long-run, greater harm to society.

Rather than stubbornly resisting the winds of change, we should leverage a key human strength that machines have yet to perfectly mimic - our ability to adapt to changing environments and circumstances.

A brave new world demands revised socioeconomic structures, bold experimental policies, and a healthy dose of hard truths to keep our nation going.

Paul Chan Poh Hoi

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 25, 2017, with the headline 'Humans unlikely to hit 'kill switch' on robots'. Print Edition | Subscribe