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Thursday, September 24, 2015, 10:26

The cyborgs are coming!

By Wang Yuke

Robots may soon take over most of the manual jobs human beings do. Wang Yuke explores possible ways of coping with the sweeping changes in the offing.

The cyborgs are coming!

The technological age is upon us, bringing new machines and software that are more efficient than humans. The change that will make human labor redundant will be as sweeping as the industrial revolution in the 19th century, warns Frank Leung Hung-fat, associate professor of Department of Electronic and Information Engineering at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. “We’d better prepare ourselves for the workplace transformation that has never ceased happening.”

Workers in low-skilled jobs earning poor wages are expected to be the hardest hit. But the advance of technology poses a threat to those in professions heavily dependent on information processing. That list is broad, including lawyers, accountants, lab technicians, anesthesiologists and many more. Machines that perform data and image processing are capable of working much faster, more efficiently and with greater accuracy than humans. The technological revolution does not necessarily mean all lawyers, accountants and so on will be out of work. The expectation, however, is that the positions available in those fields will be significantly reduced.

In today’s double income economy and high mortgages, the loss of a single pay check can spell disaster. People need to be prepared, said Leung. Finding a new job can be difficult enough. Finding a new career may be even harder.

“Unemployment contributes to stress, leading to anxiety, depression, and socially detrimental behaviors. Ultimately, crime will increase,” said Albert Francis Park, professor of the Department of Economics at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Park said that automation is likely to affect jobs at all skill levels, leading to a hollowing out of middle-skill jobs. This will only exacerbate the polarization of high-skilled and low-skilled occupations, contributing to a widening wealth gap.

Wallace Mok Kai-chung, senior lecturer specializing in labor economics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), said a sudden surge in unemployment heralds the onset of decay and abandonment of urban renewal. He cited Detroit which never quite regained its thriving economy once the factories closed down.

“It is knowledge and experience that can help overcome the crisis in the end,” Leung said.

Adapting with the times

Park believes the key to reducing the widening wealth gap brought on by automation is to reform education and retraining. Workers, he says, must adapt and prepare to meet the demands of the labor market, by equipping themselves with the right skills, as technology evolves.

“Hong Kong should invest heavily in the education of young people to make sure more qualify either for highly-skilled jobs or acquire professional expertise,” remarked Park.

Leung acknowledges that Hong Kong has started placing greater emphasis on vocational training, though many high school graduates, including those unable to qualify for university entrance, continue to disdain skills training.

“Quite a number of middle-class people study during leisure hours. They know the community is no longer so much labor-intensive as it is knowledge-based. The curricula of our education systems have been revamped for shifting to a knowledge-based world of technologies and automation.”

Leung regrets that the government does not encourage people to seek skills training more actively. Hong Kong lags behind Singapore, South Korea and even Taiwan, he said. “Examples of companies engaging in technology advancement and innovation can be found in Science Park, but the overall scale is too small.”

Leung encourages people to put themselves in the driver’s seat leading to technology advancement. More jobs will be created in that field, thanks to ongoing innovation. “The younger generation does not appreciate the great opportunities in technologies. They tend to be passive users, as opposed to proactive developers and innovators. They generally have a weak mathematical background, which deters them from studying engineering and technologies at university,” Leung reasoned.

As automation continues infiltrating our lives and grows more sophisticated, people who work in laborious, dangerous, repetitive and menial jobs are likely to become redundant within a short span of years, says Du Ruxu, professor of the Department of Mechanical and Automation at CUHK.

The highly-cited study conducted by the Oxford Martin School in September 2013 examined the effects of automation on the US labor market. The study predicted that 47 percent of US occupations will be lost to automation in the next 20 years. The most vulnerable job types include transportation and logistics, production labor, administrative support, services, sales and construction.

“I don’t think Hong Kong will lose as many as jobs as the US, given that our city doesn’t have large-scale assembly lines, which are the most vulnerable to being replaced by machines,” said Du, “Service and construction industries in Hong Kong are most likely to be affected.”

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