By Raghunath Akula
When I think artificial intelligence (AI) and its recent advancements, I immediately recall the words of Elon Musk, CEO, Tesla, “AI is our biggest existential threat.”
I don’t bring this up to scare you but to rather explain what AI and its allies have in store, particularly for developing economies.
Over several generations, we have experienced radical progress through technology innovations. General Purpose Technologies (GPT) helped redefine the role of technologies in economic growth, changing the world as we know it. Today, we are close to adding AI to this list. Indeed, as in the past when a major GPT entered the market, there is currently a marked increase in the number of patents filed, attracting large investments. New companies are rapidly entering the market but at the same time, older companies, even giants, are forced out in a hurry.
There is an irrefutable fork in the road. The question is what’s in store for all these roads leading from the fork? As Musk says, “With AI we are summoning the demon!”
When it comes to developing economics and the rise of AI, let’s explore a couple of specific examples.
First, let’s dive into the manufacturing world. Cheap labor will continue to be essential to the world economy. Industrial production with automation makes it far more cost-effective. For example, Adidas is revolutionizing manufacturing with its robots, which are now piloting highly automated footwear factories—“Speed Factories”—in Germany and the U.S. This is not the company’s only ambitious project; highly personalized 3D-printed shoes are not part of a fairy tale anymore. About a year back, BBC News reported an Apple supplier, Kunshan, China-based Foxconn, replaced 60,000 workers with robots. This is not a stray incident.
Secondly, let’s explore the service industry. Take for example the Philippines, which today derives more than ten percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) from the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) industry. This is a massive number.
Picture this scenario—are artificial personal assistants Siri or Alexa far from learning mundane and trainable jobs? Another glimpse of this phenomenon is provided by Jill Watson from the Georgia Institute of Technology. Watson was the university’s most beloved online teaching assistant. At course conclusion though, her students were in for a rude shock when they realized Jill Watson was not a real person but instead IBM Watson’s artificial teaching assistant. As the above example demonstrates, this phenomenon applies not just to mundane repeatable tasks but also highly skilled and specialized professions like teaching.
Let’s consider another example of a profession requiring higher levels of intelligence and skill—surgery. Despite drastic advancements in the field of medicine, surgeries, until recently, have been a manual task. Robots capable of performing complex procedures with better precision, flexibility, and control while at the same time being minimally invasive are currently being tested as we speak. Therefore, we would be wrong in considering any level of skill is safe from disruption. For the first time in history, highly skilled professions are being challenged as well.
Yet it’s not all doom and gloom. The traditional Cobb-Douglass Model of Productivity says that Total Production in an economy is a function of the interplay between Labor and Physical Capital inputs. With improved effectiveness of inputs by employing automation, productivity increases and higher levels of production are sustained at the same levels of inputs—contributing to growth in GDP.
Redesigning the education system so that it enables individuals to partner and work alongside machines, and provides people with opportunities for constant reskilling needs to be seriously considered. AI advancements have created a demand for specialized education in such areas as robotics, machine learning, and data analytics. Experts have suggested that by updating the education system through such means as Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics curricula in schools, the next generation of working professionals will be better prepared to handle AI. Massive Open Online Courses are also a great way to enable continuous learning and will prove vital in the AI era.
In thinking ahead, we must consider making the right choices to leverage AI’s potential. While automation—in the words of computer scientist Jerry Kaplan—is now “blind to the color of your collar,” it can become—to quote former president Lyndon Johnson—an “ally to our prosperity” with the right and timely intervention.
Raghunath Akula is a project manager offering leading e-commerce and content management projects at Ness Digital Engineering.
July2017, Software Magazine