Redefining Hong Kong

Multinationals in Hong Kong dismiss fears of job loss from AI technology, but one admits transition could be ‘painful’

Comments come at forum after studies released show bleak future for workers as technological leap in automation expected to displace millions

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 September, 2018, 8:02pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 September, 2018, 11:33pm

Multinational companies in Hong Kong have dismissed concerns over job losses arising from the emerging use of artificial intelligence, but one warned of a painful transition.

On Thursday, leaders from Ernst & Young, DHL Express and Cisco Systems voiced optimism over the impact of automation at the latest edition of the “Redefining Hong Kong Debate Series” organised by the South China Morning Post.

“The job itself will still be there. It’s the tasks within the job that may be changed,” said Michael Wong Man, Greater China talent leader of accounting giant Ernst & Young, one of the “big four” in the sector.

His remarks came days after the World Economic Forum released a study, revealing that the rapid evolution of machines and algorithms in the workplace could create 133 million new roles by 2022 while 75 million would be displaced.

The job itself will still be there. It’s the tasks within the job that may be changed

It said routine-based white-collar roles, such as data entry clerks, as well as administrative workers in accounting and payroll, were jobs expected to become redundant.

The findings echoed some of the risks pointed out by a local think tank’s study unveiled in July. The One Country Two Systems Research Institute estimated more than 1 million Hongkongers would be at risk of losing their jobs to artificial intelligence over the next 20 years.

It also estimated that 28 per cent of the city’s 3.7 million jobs were vulnerable to automation. These include secretaries, accountants and auditors, who face a 70 per cent chance of being substituted for machines before 2038.

Wong said it would still be up to companies to determine which tasks would be best done by AI technology in the future.

He believed some jobs, such as filing tax returns for clients, could be automated with the use of big data, but there would be new roles and issues for workers to handle.

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“It’s all about re-skilling or upgrading our people to ensure they can work well with robotics and new technology,” he said.

Herbert Vongpusanachai, managing director of DHL Express (Hong Kong and Macau) recounted how the development of AI initiatives helped his company manage inquiries via an online chat box function.

Amid an ageing population and workforce, robots could also assist staff to carry heavy loads and prevent injuries to human workers, he added.

Tony Wong Shou-fat, Asia-Pacific, Japan and China workplace resources director of Cisco Systems (HK) shared the same optimism. But he said it would “take some pains for society to adjust”.

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“Humankind is fragile,” Wong said. “With such changes in technology, some will be sacrificed while others survive.”

He warned a smooth transition could be a challenge and suggested the government help workers pick up new skills in the face of impending change.

Wong stressed there should also be a cultural shift, calling on officials to educate the public on new ideals, for example, teaching people to work smart instead of just being hardworking and pulling long hours.