Charlie Ang Hwa Leong, For The Straits Times

I, not Robot; I am smarter

The future of work won't render the human race redundant if people use their higher-order intelligence.


RECENT bestsellers, The Second Machine Age and The Rise Of Robots, warn of a fast-approaching jobless future and a winner-takes-all economy. The ex-chief futurist of tech giant Cisco David Evans writes that "in 50 years, 95 per cent of everything we know will have been discovered in those 50 years". Singularity University co-founder Ray Kurzweil anticipates an accelerating pace of change where "the 21st century will be equivalent to 20,000 years of progress at today's rate - about 1,000 times greater than the 20th century".

My daughters are six and seven years old and, so, joining the workforce around 2030. Against this backdrop, what kind of livelihood should I prepare them for? Indeed, for humanity as a whole, what does the future hold?

The answer lies in the fact that throughout human history, there has been a critical constraint in every era that severely caps further growth and progress. Once this constraint is removed, growth takes off.

Our ancestors were tiny (under 1m tall) and had proportionally small brains; this was our constraint. Scavenging meat added proteins and amino acids to our diet, helping us to develop larger brains and stronger muscles. In the nomadic era, the constraint was the limitation of the land to provide sufficient food. Agriculture removed the constraint; populations exploded and civilisations were born. In the agriculture era, the constraint was the limited productive energy of human labour. Fossil fuels lifted the constraint, creating energy abundance and mechanisation, which gave rise to the industrial economy. Today, we are reaching the limits of the industrial era.

What constraint are we facing and what will remove it this time? I make five predictions:

Science fiction comes to life

THIS provides the context in which we live in 2030. Many science fantasies, such as those in Star Trek (such as a universal translator, medical tri-corder), Knight Rider (autonomous cars), Jurassic Park (de-extinction), Total Recall (hyperloop), RoboCop (bionic man), The 5th Element (space tourism) and Enemy Of The State (ubiquitous surveillance), are currently under intense research and development, and likely to become reality in the near future.

In fact, a few recent advancements are so audacious that they skip the popular science-fiction phase altogether, such as the biological teleportation device (invented by American biochemist Craig Venter), edible lab-grown meat and space solar-energy harvesting.

Machines are the new workforce

BY 2030, a large part of the economy will be run by cloud services, autonomous vehicles, mobile apps, intelligent robots, drone operatives and cognitive computers.

These will perform analytical and operational duties in manufacturing, transport, agriculture, security, healthcare, media, education, and retail and front-line service sectors. Machines will be cheaper, better, faster and, in many cases, more reliable. How do you beat that? Software will be eating up the jobs.

End of the expert

PEOPLE are seen as the experts, until we meet the digital alternatives, best represented by IBM Watson (the cognitive computer that beat the champions of the game show Jeopardy!). In his 2007 book Super Crunchers, Ian Ayres argues that statistics and equations will start to triumph over human experts in profession after profession.

Today, with a free traffic crowdsourcing mobile app called Waze, an ordinary driver can reach his destination faster than a veteran taxi driver because the driver is able to anticipate real-time traffic conditions, while the "expert" has to rely on his limited memory of traffic conditions on certain routes at a certain time.

UK-based Moley Robotics is working on an electronic chef which can record and download expert recipes and reproduce the dishes at home on demand.

Having processed nearly 30 million cases, BizEquity provides a free cloud service to calculate a business' value in minutes, a process which typically costs over $5,000 and requires days to complete by an "expert" analyst. IBM Watson may soon become the best doctor in the world - by early last year, it had ingested 600,000 pieces of medical evidence, two million pages of medical journals and 25,000 training cases, which is many times the capacity of any human equivalent. Machines can crunch billions of datasets, analyse deep levels of complexity and remember permanently. How about a single human mind?

The unbundling of the job

IT IS hard to imagine that a machine will replace a white-collar professional outright, given the variety of his tasks, because it will not. Instead, the job will be dissected into numerous tasks, each performed by a highly specialised and efficient application. The remaining human role would be to coordinate these automated tasks and perform those few which are not worth automating.

Only the innovators survive

MANY of the jobs today will not exist in the 2030s and vice versa - many jobs in the 2030s are not yet invented. The old "operator" jobs in the industrial economy will be superseded by the new "innovator" opportunities in the digital era. Massive value will be created and captured by innovators, while operators will face a losing battle against their digital competition.

There will be a plethora of powerful and cheap technologies waiting for innovators to pick up to solve real-world problems, which will inevitably involve automating inefficient manual processes. The notion of jobs, which is one of many ways to package work, is itself under threat. By 2020, half of the US workforce will comprise job-free independent professionals.

By 2030, computers will probably answer work questions better and faster than people, just like how calculators produce more accurate numerical answers than us. Our value-add will then be in using our higher-order intelligence to ask the right questions, whether to run our business, invent a new product, solve a real-world problem or find a medical cure.

In this hyper-speed world, I encourage everyone to think of themselves as a "business of one", adopting entrepreneurial mindsets such as creativity, problem-solving, risk-taking, future orientation, mental agility, propensity to learn and an eye for new opportunities.

Still, despite increasing evidence of a technologically powered workforce, the future is never certain. It is up to each of us whether to dismiss this, or to err on the side of caution by preparing ourselves.

We are on the brink of uncapping the constraint of limited and expensive human intelligence, with abundant and marginally free machine intelligence. This will herald humanity's next leap of progress. The intelligence explosion is well on its way.

And, finally, I am raising my children to become entrepreneurs and innovators of the first class.

The writer is a business futurist, and former trade diplomat. He is the founding president of The Innovators Institute, an innovation company based in Singapore.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.