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Nurture mantra of relearn and reskill to cope with AI stampede

New Straits Times logo New Straits Times 28/3/2023 Dr Soon Jan Jan
© Provided by New Straits Times

BACK in November 2022, a little-known artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot was launched. Nobody saw it coming. By January this year, the ChatGPT app has over 100 million users. Everyone is in awe of its humanlike response and the level of details it can provide.

Then, reality sets in and panic strikes. From academics to journalists, authors to market analysts, computer programmers to copywriters, and a whole range of mostly white-collared professionals, are gripped by fear of losing their jobs to ChatGPT.

In 2017, two Oxford scholars – Carl Frey and Michael Osborne – found most office and administrative jobs to be among the most susceptible and at the mercy of computerisation.

Their prediction seems to be materialising. The menacing threat of technological unemployment had been forewarned centuries ago, with prophetic foresights from great philosophers and economists – Karl Marx in the 1860s (who called machineries "objectified labour"), John Maynard Keynes in the 1930s (coined the term "technological unemployment"), Joseph Schumpeter in the 1940s (coined the phrase "creative destruction"), and Wassily Leontief in the 1980s (warned of how "manpower" could suffer the destiny of the then "horsepower").

Tech mogul, Elon Musk, recently warned that AI is among the biggest threats to the future of civilisation. By 2025, the technology avalanche is expected to make 85 million jobs obsolete.

By 2030, it is estimated that a staggering 375 million workers, or 14 per cent of the workforce worldwide, would be unemployable, with jobs snatched away from them by automation, robotics, AI and machine-learning technologies.

Throw in the unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic and the world is even more chaotic. What would our future jobs be? Would there still be jobs left for us?

In the early 1900s, there was a group of seemingly indispensable "workers". They were literally known as "horsepower". In 1908, Henry Ford gave us the Model T, and jobs for the horses were wiped out within years. In the 1960s, "computers" suffered the same ill fate.

You see, "computers" were actually job designations; they were "human calculators" employed by US research centres in the 1940s and 1950s to calculate complex equations – by hand. They are now reduced to mere historical footnotes, having been superseded since by electronic calculators introduced in the early 1960s.

So are the destiny of jobs such as that of town crier (our social media equivalent), lamp lighter (street lamps), Encyclopedia salesman (Google), lector (audiobooks), telegraphist (satellite), typesetter (Microsoft Word), milkman (refrigerator), just to name a few.

What makes us think our jobs would not be in this list decades later?

If one assumes that "it won't happen in my lifetime" – think again. Let's take it home. As of the fourth quarter of 2021, about 25 per cent of jobs in Malaysia were high-skilled, 62 per cent semi-skilled and 13 per cent low-skilled. Also, Khazanah Research Institute estimates that among Malaysians, 90 per cent of the jobs we hold are semi-skilled jobs.

Just think of how grim the implications of AI technology development will be for the bulk of our semi-skilled white-collared workers; how vulnerable our jobs are.

As much as we dread being unemployed, there is another even more perturbing concern – of being rendered unemployable by machines. Are we doomed in this race against the machines?

Since halting technological advancement is not an option, it seems advanced education and ever-better skill acquisition are the remaining last stand against the AI stampede.

From parents to policymakers, the privileged to the poor, no one would argue against investing in education as a pragmatic remedy. With skills and knowledge made obsolescent at an alarmingly breakneck rate (read: every decade or so), we must constantly relearn and reskill.Google's chief economist Hal Varian has urged us to be an "expensive complement" (i.e. by acquiring technical know-how) to something that is getting cheaper (i.e. data and technology). The profundity of technological threats to our jobs is indeed forebodingly unsettling.

To think that it's impossible could well be only confined to the straightjackets of our imagination, not the possibility or realm of the "impossible".

The writer is Associate Professor at the School of Economics, Finance & Banking, Universiti Utara Malaysia and a member of the Malaysian Society for Higher Education Policy & Research Development (PenDaPat)

© New Straits Times Press (M) Bhd

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