Will Automation Take Away Jobs In Singapore?

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It wasn’t so long ago when Singaporeans were lamenting that foreign talents are taking away their jobs.

Senior managements of MNCs were staffed with expatriates from the home country and Changi Business Park was given the dubious title of “Changalore Business Park”.

About 4 years ago, the government listened to the ground sentiment and tightened the quota to hire foreign talents in hope to maintain social harmony.

Fast forward to 2017, we are soon going to be lamenting another type of “talents” taking away our jobs.

And you can say it to their face – they won’t get offended.

Enter the robot era

According to a study by Oxford University, more than 700 occupations are at risk of computer automation.

The top 10 jobs that are most at risk would be:

  • Loan officers
  • Receptionists and information clerks
  • Paralegals and legal assistants
  • Retail salespersons
  • Taxi drivers and chauffeurs
  • Security guards
  • Cooks, fast food
  • Bartenders
  • Personal financial advisers

In Singapore, we are already seeing the invasion of automation across many different levels and functions.

Nutonomy is working on a self-driving car, Kurve Automation is trying replace chefs in all kitchens and Bambu is providing a robo advisory solutions to replace human financial planners with automated, algorithm-based portfolio management advice.

And there are a hundred more technology companies trying to inject automation into the unique space that they are in.

Imagine the day when Nutonomy goes mainstream. There would be no need for bus, trucks and taxi drivers.

As of September 2016, the total taxi fleet in Singapore is 27,708. Where can we find 27,708 jobs for these drivers? Not forgetting, there are also Uber/Grab drivers, delivery riders and countless others in the logistics and transport sector who will be affected.

Automation has been more pervasive over these couple of years, we have already seen it streaming into our daily lives.

From smarter ATMs to the sprouting of mechanical car park gantries, jobs are going slowly the way of the dinosaur as robots with improved artificial intelligence do a better and more consistent job than us humans.

Even your typical job search is laden with a huge dose of automation which meant a lot of resume optimisation in order to get through the recruiting robot.

The term Artificial Intelligence adds salt to the wound. Because the opposite would be us and I can’t think of anything else except Natural Stupidity (NS).

 

The Good and the Bad

Despite how automation is threatening jobs, I am taking advantage of all the automation that I can get my hands on.

In my other job at The Resource Group, I do a lot of prospecting and lead generating. These are done easily with Reply which helps me to automate and scale 1:1 conversations.

If there are interest to fix a schedule, Evie (the AI scheduling assistant made in Singapore) would automatically set it up for me.

There goes two potential new jobs.

And that’s just me.

It might sound all bad but the demand for such automation has also led to new opportunities that humans could participate in.

 

Higher value jobs replace defunct ones

Although some jobs will be displaced as Singapore moves towards a Smart Nation, there will also be new higher jobs created, says Melvin Yong, Executive Secretary of United Workers of Electronics & Electrical Industries (UWEEI).

He cites an example of a Yokogawa Electric Asia worker, Wang Mui Sin, who first joined her company as a machine operator in 1980, and has improved her skills to take on higher value added jobs in the IT systems, and now production planning.

Singapore also recently benefitted from the launch of the Micron facility, which manufactures memory chips for the global market, because it created 500 new jobs.

At security solutions provider Soverus, automation is used to help improve jobs of security officers like Mr Pang, so they can skill up and do higher value jobs and get better pay, instead of spending working hours walking and patrolling all the time or press the up/down barrier button for cars to enter compounds.

 

Rise of the Robots

A year back I read this book titled ‘Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future by Martin Ford’.

It is a pretty depressing read so make sure you are not near any sharp objects when you are going through it.

In the book, the author argues that this robotic era will be unlike the past industrial revolution.

That increasingly, machines will be able to take care of themselves, and fewer jobs will be necessary. The effects of this transition could be shattering.

With robots currently able to write scripts and even replacing CEO eventually (how about our politicians?), it is hard not to agree with Martin Ford.

 

The ATM example

But history shows us otherwise.

45 years since the introduction of the automated teller machine, the number of human bank tellers employed in the United States has roughly doubled, from about a quarter of a million to a half a million.

These facts, revealed in a recent book by Boston University economist James Bessen, raise an intriguing question: what are all those tellers doing, and why hasn’t automation eliminated their employment by now?

Because as bank tellers fell by about a third per branch, banks quickly discovered that it also was cheaper to open new branches, and the number of bank branches increased by about 40 percent in the same time period.

The net result was more branches and more tellers.

And those tellers were doing somewhat different work.

As their routine, cash-handling tasks receded, they became less like checkout clerks and more like salespeople, forging relationships with customers, solving problems and introducing them to new products like credit cards, loans and investments: more tellers doing a more cognitively demanding job.

 

Our ingenuity will help us prevail

But even though I am a pessimistic scorpio, I am confident we can be better prepared for that eventuality.

And it begins by us acknowledging that the worst case scenario will indeed pan out.

That jobs will be replaced by robots and lesser jobs will be required.

How do we create new jobs? What do we need to change in our education system and curriculum right now to prep for that future a few decades later?

Baby steps policies are not enough when automation progression is occurring with giant leaps.

I personally believe it all begin with increasing our ability to innovate.

To have the ability to invent new industries that would lead to new jobs.

From Pokemon Go to Zumba to Bitcoins, humans have been able to create something from nothing. And in doing so create new employment opportunities.

What we need to do now is to provide that climate that encourages innovation across the population in Singapore.

Instead of clamouring to be the #1 in everything we wish to do (which often is measured by economical metrics), aim to be the most innovative instead.

And it starts from a major shift in the way we educate the next generation.

A condensed version of this article is published on Yahoo

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