How will the changing economy and labour market affect me?

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Don't lose your job to WALL-E!

Do you sometimes feel that movie directors can predict the future? This struck me when I recently re-watched WALL-E on Netflix.

WALL-E is a Disney movie character, a robot that becomes sentient despite being the only one of his kind still functioning on an abandoned and contaminated Earth in 2805. Interestingly, this 2008 movie seems to reflect our current world. Jack Ma, CEO of Alibaba, said “In the past 20 years, we tried to make humans work like robots. In the next 20 years, we are going to make robots work like humans.".

Here are two technologies that are transforming robots to work like humans:

Machine learning

WALL-E was built by humans to collect trash but it learnt to dance, hold hands and even express love. You might have dismissed it as absurd when watching the movie back then, but it's all a reality now - all thanks to machine learning.

If you think about it, machine learning is already a big part of our daily lives. Google’s search engine, the biggest website in the world, is powered by machine learning. How do you think that Google is able to understand your search query and give you accurate results most of the time? For example, if you are searching for "Apple", how does it know if you are looking for a fruit or a computer? Well, it does so by collecting millions of data points and gradually learning human behaviour. After a while, Google’s search engine became (almost) as smart as a human being. That also means that robots today need not be confined to mundane repetitive jobs in a factory.

It's been years since Yellow Pages directory has been made redundant by Google’s search engine. And tech disruption is showing no signs of slowing down. Taxi, delivery, travel and financial industries are among those being rapidly disrupted today. For example, JP Morgan, a U.S. multinational banking and financial services holding company recently announced that it is using a software that can accomplish in seconds what it took legal aides 360,000 hours of work to do. The rise of financial technology (Fintech) is already making the stock broker, reconciliation officer, data analyst, insurance agent and wealth manager redundant.

Big data

With digitisation, data becomes abundant, and this greatly empowers robots. Data for robots is like spinach for Popeye.

In a ground-breaking report this year, an A.I. named Libratus shocked the world when it beat four of the world’s best poker players in a gruelling 20-day tournament. Poker involves lots of guessing and bluffing, which no one thought A.I could do. In fact, Libratus analysed trillions of hands to derive its strategy in the game; something humans can't do.

It is also now possible for A.I. to diagnose your medical condition or provide you with a complex (or simple) solution after analysing truckloads of data. This means that even specialised professionals like doctors or lawyers are not spared from the threats of technological disruption.

With that being said, what are the implications for us? Does it mean that humans will be replaced by robots?

Robots can never replace humans

Well...thankfully no! David Autor, an economist in MIT, wrote in a research paper: "A.I. complements more than replaces labour. It raises output in ways that lead to higher demand for labour, and interacts with adjustments in labour supply." Humans have three unique characteristics that makes us irreplaceable:

1. Explore

Robots are programmed to carry out specific tasks, and work very well if data is available. However, in unfamiliar territory, they are pretty much helpless. On the contrary, humans have a survival instinct that helps us cope with the unknown. Our grandparents who came to Singapore from all over the world had to survive in an unknown environment. And survive they did. They turned this little red dot into a first world country and stunned the world.

We are endowed with the ability to break out of life's programming and venture into the unknown. Sometimes, that means forgoing predictable pathways to success and getting out of our comfort zones to tread uncharted territories.

2. Socialise

The movie WALL-E went a little over the top, showing humans relying on computers as the only mode of communication. However, looking at how Singaporeans today communicate and consume information, it may not be that far-fetched. Did you know Singaporeans spend an average of 12 hours 42 minutes per day on digital devices? We have become less social!

Socialising is not only good for our well-being, it may even lead to a booming career for us. Dr Graeme Codrington, a South African author and consultant hinted that the jobs of the future will be "high touch, high tech and high trust". Among the three areas, two of them involves strong human-to-human interaction. If you think that programming is the only job that exists in the future, you can't be more wrong.

According to a study done by Oxford University, jobs that are high-touch and involve social intelligence such as public relations and healthcare are automation-resistant and are likely to be in demand in the near future.

For example, even though a robot may replace some of the activities that a nurse can do such as administering medication, it cannot completely replace the nurse because the human touch is vital to a patient’s healing process. In his landmark TedTalk, physician Abraham Verghese highlighted why human interaction is crucial in a data-driven world. He explained that, unlike a nurse, a robot can never motivate patients to persevere in the face of difficulties. A robot can also never empathise with patients like a fellow human can.

3. Adapt

When you walk into a smelly room, you might feel turned off. After a while, you find that it doesn't smell so bad anymore. The stench didn't disappear; we simply adapted to the smell. The human ability to adapt is amazing, and this gift doesn't only apply to our five senses but also our mental resilience. It is this unique ability that helps humankind endure and thrive in the face of radical change.

In today's world of rapid technological disruptions, the ability to adapt has once again been thrust into the limelight. While IQ used to be highly valued, adaptability seems to be the new currency in the job market. Harvard Business Review called it the new competitive advantage and the most essential career skill.

Technology – use it, don’t be used by it

Sure, robots may seem scary. But think of them as a reminder that we cannot afford to let ourselves stagnate. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, said in a speech at MIT, “I’m not worried about artificial intelligence giving computers the ability to think like humans. I'm more concerned about people thinking like computers."

Technology is a game changer. Be the game master.

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