Why AI stealing our jobs may be a blessing in disguise – if we can rethink what meaningful work is
Kristine Yang says Hong Kong’s low employment rate is not a cause for celebration as the in-demand jobs are those likely to be replaced by AI. Instead, the coming revolution should shift our focus to creative work that machines cannot do
From steam engines to computers, new technologies that emerged from past industrial revolutions stimulated new demand, boosted economic growth and eventually created more jobs than they destroyed. However, every revolution has its winners and losers.
Some feel that the idea that AI will take over human jobs is unduly pessimistic. Given that Hong Kong’s labour market remains tight, the impact of AI on job displacement appears not to have been felt yet. However, with many people today still trapped in the struggle for survival, there is fear that AI will worsen their lives, not improve it.
So when research by the One Country Two Systems Research Institute and the University of Oxford found that 28 per cent of jobs in Hong Kong are at high risk of automation in the next 10 to 20 years, it seems to suggest that such fears may be realised. But the question to ask is not whether AI will make human labour obsolete, but to what extent it will transform our society.
In an AI-prevalent future, where will the valuable jobs come from? Let’s look at Hong Kong’s current job market first. On the surface, it is a relief that the unemployment rate is 2.8 per cent, a historical low. But a closer look at the composition of vacancies doesn’t suggest a bright future.
As of the first quarter of this year, among 76,880 private-sector vacancies, the majority were in food and beverage services (12,030), retail trade (8,110) and professional and business services (7,670). The most in-demand occupations are service and sales workers (23,738), followed by associate professionals (14,672), representing year-on-year change of 3.7 per cent and 7.8 per cent respectively. Notably, demand for clerical support workers (9,186 vacancies) registered the biggest increase of 28.2 per cent.
It is of extreme concern that these jobs are all at high risk of automation. According to our research, roles such as general secretary and general office clerk have a 95 per cent risk of AI replacement. Waiters and bartenders have an 85 per cent chance being automated. Other sales workers and elementary workers also face an around 80 per cent risk.
Associate professionals are not safe either. While the probability of doctors being replaced by AI is as low as 0.4 per cent, the risk for medical and pharmaceutical technicians soars to 50 per cent. Similarly, lawyer and judges face a 28 per cent risk being automated, but the risk jumps to 58 per cent for legal associate professionals.
In other words, we are recruiting people into occupations that could be easily replaced in the near future. It is noteworthy that sectors with low automation risk, including health care, education, IT and the cultural and creative industry together contribute to only 8 per cent of Hong Kong’s gross domestic product and 11 per cent of the employment in Hong Kong.
It was not long ago when couriers were in demand and received attractive financial packages, thanks to the e-commerce boom. But just a few years later, e-commerce and logistics companies are heavily investing in drones and robotics to replace them.
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Today, parents in Hong Kong are still proud of their children in accounting and financial services. Unfortunately, there is a 95 per chance that AI will replace accountants and auditors in the near future. The risk for financial professionals is also as high as 70 per cent.
These changes are looming in the future. The explosive development of big data and quantum computing will only further the inevitable advancement of the AI revolution. When AlphaGo beat a champion South Korean player in 2016, it had been just 10 years since Geoffrey Hinton published his influential paper on deep learning.
Today, AI has proven to be better than people in various areas, particularly voice recognition, image recognition and natural language processing. AI’s self-learning and evolving capacity has increasingly challenged human distinctiveness.
The technological upheaval precipitated by AI raises the fundamental question of what a job means to us in this day and age. When AI can do our jobs better, what is our role and why?
Looking back on the historical transformation of human economic activities, the modern conception of a job has only existed for the past 200 years as a result of industrialisation and specialised division of labour. Before the first industrial revolution, the words “workday” and “weekend” didn’t even exist. Thus, as history once again enters a revolutionary period, the meaning of work will probably be redefined.
As psychologist Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” theory suggests, when people’s basic – physiological and safety – needs are met, they pursue a sense of belonging and love, esteem, and ultimately, self-actualisation. That is what differentiates us from machines.
In this sense, meaningful work is not just paid employment. Rather, it is acting towards achieving our full potential, value, and purpose, and eventually the overall well-being of our society.
When a machine performs rational activities perfectly, an optimistic vision for AI is that it will augment human intelligence and creativity. In an AI-empowered workplace, there will be a high level of human-machine collaboration, where people upgrade their roles to more creative, sophisticated managerial and people-focused areas.
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In the light of this, we should not be satisfied with the current low unemployment rate. Instead of keeping people occupied, it is more important to create and secure meaningful work for everyone. For individuals, this means acquiring advanced and competitive abilities, creativity and people skills. For our society, it means people-centred services and production, and social innovation.
As American author James Collins said: “It is impossible to have a great life unless it is a meaningful life. And it is very difficult to have a meaningful life without meaningful work.”
If technology could free us from mundane work, would you still hope for a typhoon signal No 8 just to steal a half-day off from work?
Kristine Yang is a research officer at One Country Two Systems Research Institute