Who will benefit from innovative technologies?

September 19, 2019 15:04
Innovative technologies will allow workers to have more time for leisure and personal pursuits, but can also threaten their employment. Photo: AFP

In the United States, a computer programmer shared a "trade secret" on an online forum frequented by people in his line of work.

The man said he was hired to do a full-time job of data entry, but instead of doing the job manually, he used a program to automate the work. The one who used to occupy his position had to spend a month to complete the task, but it only took him 10 minutes to finish it, and the result was "near perfect".

What’s more, his employer was not aware of his secret as he was working from home.

After telling his story, the programmer asked netizens in the social network if they thought his practice was moral.

There was a flood of responses and comments. Some believed he was cheating or at least deceiving his boss while others appreciated his cleverness in performing his job.

In the 1930s, the famous British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that with automation and mass production, people would have more time for leisure. Everyone would just be working three hours a day or 15 days a week, and enjoy the rest of the day.  

It seems that this prophecy has come true for some people.

Work that can be automated is normally repetitive, such as inventory management, data entry, routine report writing, graphic presentation, database administration, etc.

Consultancy firm McKinsey estimated that by 2025, many knowledge-based jobs will be replaced by innovative technologies such as automation and artificial intelligence. This would affect at least 230 million people or 9 percent of the world's workforce, involving 27 percent of global employment costs, or US$9 trillion.

Who will benefit from technology? Keynes thought it would directly benefit skilled employees, while McKinsey believes the organization can significantly reduce employment costs and indirectly benefit consumers.

The question is, will consumers who lose their jobs because of technology get benefits?

The US presidential election campaigns will proceed in earnest next year. One of the candidates in the Democratic primaries is Andrew Yang. He may not be well-known but his political advocacy is remarkable.

The Chinese-American proposed to give every American US$1,000 per month as universal basic income. That means each adult aged 18 to 64 would have a basic income of US$12,000 per year, regardless of their background and work status. Where would the money come from? From additional taxes on technology giants such as Amazon and Google, according to Yang.

Amazon enjoys tax concessions, but it is estimated that the e-commerce giant has snatched 30 percent of the business of shopping malls. As such, it should pay a value-added tax for each of its transactions.

Google is developing self-driving vehicles which are expected to cause unemployment to 3.5 million truck drivers. Each of these drivers has an annual income of US$46,000. For them, truck-driving is one of the highest-paying jobs they can have since most of them are only high school graduates. And since self-driving technology would cause them great losses or even unemployment, they should seek subsidy. 

The tech giants should return the wealth to the people.

The fourth industrial revolution is bringing enormous changes to the world. There are various opinions on how to solve the problems brought by the changes.

I believe that we should actively seek consensus on how to address these issues and work for the benefit of the people. This is the way to long-term stability.

– Contact us at [email protected]


Adjunct Professor, Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Engineering; Department of Geography, Faculty of Social Sciences; and Faculty of Architecture, The University of Hong Kong