Will robots, AI, algorithms take over the world of work?

Updated September 12, 2019

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In a world today that is increasingly looking like what was shown in the Jetsons cartoon series in the mid-1980s there are serious questions being asked about the future of the work and whether technology will destroy jobs. — Aurora/File
In a world today that is increasingly looking like what was shown in the Jetsons cartoon series in the mid-1980s there are serious questions being asked about the future of the work and whether technology will destroy jobs. — Aurora/File

IN a world today that is increasingly looking like what was shown in the Jetsons cartoon series in the mid-1980s there are serious questions being asked about the future of the work and whether technology will destroy jobs.

The concerns are real. By 2021, states techgig.com, an estimated 640,000 low-skilled IT jobs will be replaced by automation and artificial intelligence (AI) in India.

“Will robots steal our jobs; will my boss be an algorithm?” are concerns of today said Tomoko Nishimoto, International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) regional director for the Asia Pacific at the Social Protection Week 2019 organised by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in Manila, Philippines.

As ILO celebrates the completion of 100 years of its being it believes it will have to redefine what an employee and an employer may be in future; factor in new working time and figure out what a workplace may entail, to be able to draw new work policies, law and regulations.

It will have to especially look at people that are doing gigs, by choice or otherwise. Gigs, for the uninitiated, mean a job for a specified, usually short, period of time — like freelancers, consultants working on a project or even part-time hires. A recent study by online jobs marketplace Upwork found an estimated 4.1 million (or one-third of the workforce) Australians are freelancing. In addition, 746,000 people in regular jobs are moonlighting as freelancers to earn extra cash.

In next couple of years, India alone is set to axe 640,000 low-skilled IT jobs

“Economies like Pakistan are a perfect place to take advantage of this freelance economy” according to Veqar ul Islam, chief executive and director at Jaffer Business Systems and president Touchpoint Pvt Limited. He gave the example of the proliferation of mobile phones that have enabled the rich and the poor to be part of this transformation as the cost of entry to business is significantly reduced.

“Besides platforms such as Uber, Careem and host of others have provided people with opportunities to just get on the bandwagon and start doing their own business,” said Islam.

The greatest manifestation of the ideas economy, he pointed out is how people with ideas are becoming an entrepreneur — either as a freelancer or as a full-time engagement. “It is not surprising that according to Forbes Pakistan is amongst the fourth fastest-growing freelance economy.”

This was corroborated by Hisham Sarwar, CEO of Infomist Services who himself has been an instructor in a government-led programme aimed at teaching one million Pakistanis “digi-skills” through distance learning from a virtual university.

Citing a Global Gig Economy Index 2019, by Payoneer, an online payment portal, Pakistan’s Gen X scored fourth position surpassing India and Bangladesh (at seventh and eighth position respectively) among the top-ranked Asian country, Sarwar says receiving remittances by Pakistanis in the gig economy has surpassed those based in these two countries.

Therefore, said Annabella Ng, one of the panellists looking at the Changing World of Work, it is almost impossible to draw a profile of a person doing gigs given it is so diverse. Working with Grab, a ride-hailing network (but which has expanded services to include a plethora of services food and groceries deliveries etc in eight South-East Asian countries and 339 cities) giving the example of a grab driver who “may work part-time, or full time, or a few hours”. In Malaysia, those with hearing impairments or who are mute, are finding work as Uber drivers.

And because of the very nature of the beast — driven by technology — and too informal in form, it does not fall within the realm of labour laws, pointed out Alexandre Kolev from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Centre.

It is time, therefore, to examine the technology-fuelled digital disruption world of work (still in infancy), to be able to then protect the new workforce.

For many, the challenge is how to find them and organise them as they seem to be everywhere and yet invisible. Finn Koh, director of Data Pi, a data analytics company thinks otherwise. Because of the very nature of their work, this workforce can be traced by the “digital footprint” they leave.

Acknowledging that “the current system is not quite ready” for the gig economy, ILO’s senior social protection specialist, Nuno Cunha, said, an effort was therefore required for “social security institutions and respective regulations to be adapted to the needs and specificities of this new group of workers”. And the solution, he said, will be found using the same technology that is driving the gig economy.

At the same time, the good news is technology is also an equaliser, if you ask senior economist at ILO, Maribel Ortiz and leaves no one behind. She gave the example of the mobile phone, which has been one of the biggest technological disruptors of our time.

With a population of over 207 million, Pakis­tan has over 151 million mobile phone users ac­­co­­r­­­ding to Pakistan Telecommunication Autho­rity, till July last year. It can play an important part in leapfrogging on to the digital highway.

But to give impetus to this kind of work said Islam, the government must come up with friendly regulations and an ecosystem which brings them as part of the documented economy.

Published in Dawn, September 12th, 2019