Artificial intelligence will devastate the world

BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz - The Philippine Star

Most journalists and observers are focused on the potential problems they think will affect the future of the global economy. Some of these include the possibility of a global recession, inflation, the volatility of oil prices, and trade wars. Political scientists talk and write about the geopoliticial issues like the cold war and terrorism. 

There are those, however, who believe that the greatest threat to the future of mankind is the accelerating development of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Thus far, most writings on Artificial Intelligence have been focused on the race for superiority between China and the United States. There are, however, those who are beginning to write about the effect of AI on poor countries. Recently, Kai-Fu Lee, author of AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley and the New World Order recently wrote an article on the effect of AI on poor countries like the Philippines. The title of his article was AI Could Devastate the Developing World.

His main thesis was the Third World cannot look to the China and India models for economic development. In the China model, a country builds a manufacturing base based on low labor cost. Then it begins to move up the value chain and start to produce more high-end products until it reaches a stage where it can become a technology intensive economy.

The India model, which sounds like the Philippines, combines a large English speaking population and becomes a global hub for the outsourcing of low-end white collar jobs in areas like business process outsourcing (BPO) and software development. 

Whether it is manual labor in factories or cognitive labor in call centers, both models are based on lower cost as a competitive advantage. Artificial Intelligence is particularly adept at these two kinds of work. Here is what Kai-Fu Lee says in his article:

“Artificial intelligence is accelerating the automation of factories and taking over routine tasks such as customer service or telemarketing. AI does such jobs cheaper than low wage workers of the developing world and, over time, will do them better. Robots examining your iPhone for scratches don’t take vacations for Chinese New Year; AI customer service agents don’t demand pay raises. 

Without a cost incentive to locate in the developing world, corporations will bring many of these functions back to the countries where they are based. That will leave emerging economies, unable to grasp the bottom rungs of the development ladder, in a dangerous position. The large pool of young and relatively unskilled workers that once formed their greatest comparative advantage will become a liability – a potentially explosive one.

Increasing desperation in the developing worlds will contrast with massive accumulation of wealth among the AI superpowers. AI runs on data and that dependence leads to a self perpetuating cycle of consolidation in industries: the more data you have, the better your product. The better your product, the more users you gain. The more users you gain, the more data you have. The result will be an unprecedented concentration of productive capacity in the hands of the elite AI companies, almost all of which are located in the US and China. According to one study by the consulting firm PwC, of the $15.7 trillion in wealth AI will generate globally by 2030, a full 70% will accrue to these two countries alone.”

What will the countries in the developing world do to cope with these threats? For countries like the Philippines, in the foreseeable future, there will be plenty of opportunities in the “human-centered service” industries. Even the most efficient robots are still a long way from being able to give customers and travellers the feeling of personal warmth and hospitality which can be unique in such industries as tourism, culture, hotline call centers and caring for the sick and the elderly. Countries that can excel at these services will continue to have a competitive advantage against the AI superpowers.

World class education is the only long term solution to the coming age of artificial intelligence. Mathematics and the sciences must be part of the curriculum at an early age. Robotics, computer science and engineering academic programs must strive to be, at least, on the same level as Asia’s best schools. The Philippines needs to develop several world class universities.

There is, at the moment, a crisis in university education in the Philippines. In the 2018 world ranking of the world’s top 1,250 universities by the Times Higher Education rankings, only two (yes, only two) were included in the list – University of the Philippines and De La Salle University. This is a country of 105 million people with almost 1,000 universities and colleges. However, only two Philippine universities made it to the list of the top 1,250 universities in the world. This is a crisis that could lead to a difficult future for the Filipino people if this is not remedied. 

One other reason that has made China and the United States leaders in the Digital Revolution is because innovators and entrepreneurs – like Jack Ma of China and Bill Gates of the USA – have become role models for the youth. In both societies, there are scientists, engineers and inventors who inspire others to follow in their footsteps.

In the Philippines we have role models who nurture political dynasties, spout nonsense on social media and noontime shows and mistake power as the ultimate reward instead of contributing to the common good of humanity. 

But I am the eternal optimist and still believe that the Filipino people is not only worth dying for; but they have a manifest destiny.

Creative writing classes for kids, teens and adults

Young Writers’ Hangout on Nov. 10 and 24 (1:30pm-3pm; stand-alone sessions), writing in the workplace with Ginny Santiago on Nov. 17  (1:30-4:30 pm) at Fully Booked BGC.  For details and registration,  email [email protected]

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