17 September 2019
AI and the technological breakthroughs it brings about will affect not only labor-intensive industries, but also brain-intensive sectors. Photo: Reuters
AI and the technological breakthroughs it brings about will affect not only labor-intensive industries, but also brain-intensive sectors. Photo: Reuters

Time to buckle up for the 4th industrial revolution

As artificial intelligence (AI) technology is rapidly coming of age and is being applied to an increasing number of industries and sectors, it has given rise to new forms of economic activities and models of working.

At the same time, the AI technology has proven such a game-changer that it has produced profound and far-reaching implications for the traditional business model so much so there is a prevailing view that the world is entering the “4th Industrial Revolution”.

And what truly sets this latest industrial revolution apart from the previous ones is that the prevalence of AI and the technological breakthroughs it brings about would not only affect labor-intensive industries this time, but also brain-intensive sectors as well.

It is because AI allows computers and other automated machine systems to keep learning and improving their skills as well as efficiency through the technology of “Machine Learning”.

As a result, many executive and professional jobs which used to rely on human judgment and decision-making can now be done by computers.

For example, in recent years, members of the accounting profession have begun to discuss the implications of AI for the entire industry in the long run.

In fact according to a past study carried out by Oxford University, the accountant is among the most endangered jobs in the era of AI-powered automation.

In other words, unlike the previous industrial revolutions, in which it was mainly blue-collar and low-skilled workers who were at the receiving end of new technologies, the next industrial revolution we are about to undergo is likely to drive even the most highly educated and professional people out of their jobs.

As such, perhaps it is time for us to seriously study the implications of AI for human society and get ourselves prepared for the imminent changes.

Andrew Yang, a Chinese-American and a Democratic hopeful for the 2020 presidential election, has recently published a book titled “The War On Normal People”.

In the book he points out that while AI-powered automation is opening a lot of doors for mankind, it might also steal jobs from a lot of average people, thereby giving rise to social and economic unrest.

To address the issue, Yang has made numerous proposals in his book, such as guaranteeing the basic income of the entire population, reviving barter and reforming the higher education system.

I might not totally agree with what Yang says and proposes in his book, but I do believe he has at least provided us with a fresh angle and good starting point from which we can facilitate public discussion about our long-term social and economic development in the age of AI.

Meanwhile, I also believe the Hong Kong government should not only regard AI as purely a new growth engine for the economy, but should study the social, economic and human resource ramifications of the increasingly widespread application of the AI technology.

In fact governments around the world have already started doing so. For example, Britain published a report known as “Growing the artificial intelligence industry in the UK” in October last year.

In the report, the British government has proposed a set of development strategies on the use of AI, opening up data, diverting funding into research, as well as the nurturing of talent, so as to make sure the country would have substantial competitiveness to meet the new challenges posed by AI technologies.

In 2016, the US government announced a national development strategy on AI. And recently, it has established a special committee to coordinate government efforts and to allow experts to advise the administration on this fundamental issue.

As to the implications of AI for Hong Kong, earlier on I have raised the issue with government officials at Legco.

However, it appears our government has only devised a few measures regarding education and the tech sector in a piecemeal fashion while lacking an overall blueprint for AI development in our city.

It is my sincere hope that the administration can address the issue of AI development with a more broadened vision in the days ahead.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 14

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Member of Legislative Council (Functional Constituency – Accountancy)