I contend Artificial intelligence in Asia is not going to make everyone unemployed in the next 5 years. Why do I say this? I just read a MIT Technology Review and ADP paper on the ‘Artificial Intelligence (AI) agenda for Asia’ a friend at Watson just sent me. It’s at the end of this blog.

Frankly they didn’t figure out much other than no one is really sure what is going on and the paper is a bit of a paper weight, but it did encourage me to rant a little on why AI is not going to put everyone on the unemployment line soon.

In the paper, they surveyed “over 60 Asia based senior executives to gather perspective on the impact of AI and robotics on Asia’s business landscape. Additionally, two dozen senior HR professionals were polled to assess the impact on jobs in Asia— and the future of their roles in particular. Several in-depth interviews were conducted with AI industry technologists, investors, and application developers.

Job losses

70% of respondents feel that AI and robotics will lead to substantial job losses in Asia over the next five years, underscoring a long-standing anxiety that many in Asia feel when considering the impact of new technologies.

Many people think the sky is falling and humans are in trouble. “Speculation on the future of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics technologies often posits a binary outcome: either AI will profoundly increase efficiency and convenience for the world’s economies and its people, or it will irrevocably disrupt (if not destroy) nearly every established industry and the livelihoods they all support.” Frankly, our demise is not certain by any stretch of a rational imagination.

artificial intelligence in asia

The report finds most people believe AI and robotics will lead to a lot of job losses in just 5 years. But not just losses, ‘substantial’ ones. Hmm. Let’s be logical about this.

For there to be substantial losses of employment, you need:

  1. Large companies to adopt AI at scale
  2. Large companies to be able to restructure
  3. Senior management who will allow this to happen on their watch
  4. Startups to do enterprise and that can manage sales cycles
  5. Venture capitalists that understand enterprise and artificial intelligence in Asia
  6. Governments who will allow companies to fire so many people (whatever you define as substantial)
  7. Advanced AI
  8. Advanced AI productised in the next 2ish years so companies get to a place where they bring out guillotines

Let’s face it, there are not going to be substantial losses in 5 years:

“It’s not that I don’t believe AI will make vast numbers of people unemployed, it’s that if you were able to, I don’t think governments [in Asia] would allow you to.”

  1. Large companies are getting their head around SaaS presently. They are also not fully au fait with cloud storage. Adopting Skynet is a reach
  2. Firing a lot of people requires a hella lot of work as well as people who can figure out how to reprocess the organisation, which empirically is not a given
  3. Senior management are senior as they are politicians. Does firing a lot of people make them 1. look good and 2. get them a bonus? Maybe the latter, not sure about the former
  4. Startups don’t really like enterprise, it’s not sexy. At present there aren’t many enterprise startups in Asia at all. Assuming loads more companies get going, they still need to stay alive long enough to manage the sales cycle to start getting money out of these big companies
  5. VCs in Asia, for the vast part, do not understand enterprise. Most VCs globally with a few exceptions, do not really understand AI, and even fewer could actually even do tech DD. Combine enterprise and AI together and a tonne of money is not going to be sunk in here anytime soon in enterprise artificial intelligence in Asia. Sure the American VCs will do so, but it’s going to take quite a while before the Americans start venturing to little old Asia since their own markets are big enough for quite a while. The same sort of applies to China (I mean, great ones are more likely to go to the US too, right?)
  6. Substantial employment will draw the ire of governments. One senior exec said to me “It’s not that I don’t believe AI will make vast numbers of people unemployed, it’s that if you were able to, I don’t think governments [in Asia] would allow you to.”
  7. AI is not where people think it is. It’s pretty basic. We are like the Intel 4004 chip compared to today’s multi-core processors. In the future, knowledge workers will still need to work. Baidu IDL director Lin Yuanqing. “Even the best robotic financial analyst is only going to prepare a report at 70% of the capability and insight of its human counterpart.” Artificial intelligence in asia is not advanced and there are only a handful of companies around.
  8. Since AI is not in a position to make a substantial amount of people unemployed today, it’s going to take years to get to a place where it conceivably could do so. AI is going to have to make huge leaps in ~2 years for startups to be in a position to start getting people fired. The timeline is simply too short. 10 years, yeah, possibly

No one knows what is going on, nor what will happen

Most of the charts in the document are pointless. The min/max from respondents is about 10% on questions. Look at the below chart, it basically only says ‘yeah, sure, something good will generally happen everywhere.artificial intelligence in asia

The experts add general a general lack of specifity too:

  • Lin Yuanqing, the director of the Institute of Deep Learning at Baidu Research (known as Baidu IDL) said AI will happen… generally. “It is impossible to point to an industry that will be ‘first’ to adopt AI. Public transportation, logistics—nearly every critical infrastructure platform can benefit from it, and they are all interconnected. AI will come to all industries at once, and it will come sooner than we think.
  • Lin adds we are not going to be replaced either: “This is not scary. All our work lives will be complemented, for the better—we are not going to be replaced.
  • Most people seem to be aware, but are unprepared and not doing anything about it. “decision makers at Asian-based firms are firmly convinced of the benefits AI and automation technology will bring to their own prospects and the region’s economy as a whole, but most have not yet committed resources to capitalize on these beliefs

So generally people see benefit (somewhere), but aren’t doing anything about it. This doesn’t spell the end of work as we know it any time soon.

Change will happen

Now, I am firmly in the camp that AI is going to shake things up. I believe that a lot of people are going to lose their jobs, or be ‘reassigned’, but this is going to happen in certain functions and it will start with areas akin to the field known as ‘robotic process automation.’ I.e. places where repetitive work is undertaken.

AI can currently only be applied to narrow problems, and not the wide ones the Watson marketing machine is telling everyone it can do so. Common problems in industries will see process changes happen. There will also certainly be some super productivity efficiency gains. Some departments may start looking different, but companies will not. Not for at least 5 years.

I’m not setting myself up to make a silly prediction to be ridiculed at how wrong I was, only if you know; 1/ how slow big companies are to make changes, and 2/ the current state of AI, you won’t be too optimistic about the ‘substantial’ changes that will happen in the short term. In the long term we are all dead anyway.

Artificial intelligence in Asia is at day 0. There is a long way to go.

artificial intelligence in asia

Asia’s AI agenda


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