The question “Will your job be replaced by a robot?” is a hot topic these days. And it’s far from being rhetorical.
With rapid and accelerating technological progress, experts predict that many of today’s jobs will be automated within two decades. A 2013 Oxford University study estimates that 47% of jobs in the United States is at risk of elimination by technology in 2030. In MIT Technology Review’s “Asia’s AI Agenda” report, some 70% of HR executives surveyed felt that artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics adoption will result in significant job losses in Asia over the next five years.
In the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), the new wave of digital and smart technologies will spark off the “creative destruction” of jobs and re-invent the future of work. Workers in every profession and industry must now brace themselves for rising competition – not just from workers from overseas – but increasingly from intelligent technologies.
What’s the future of work like?
The 4IR heralds the rise of cognitive, robotic and autonomous systems that operate with minimal human supervision and enable self-service by end-users. These next-generation systems will augment, and in some cases, replace their human counterparts.
According to Accenture’s “The Promise of Artificial Intelligence” report, AI will first play the role of the “assistant” (providing routine and coordination support), “advisor” (providing complex problem solving and decision-making support) and eventually, “actor” (making decisions proactively and autonomously) as it pervades the organisation. It warns that "by the end of this decade, AI will enter businesses en masse… (and) affect all levels of management, from the C-suite to the front line.”
Jobs that are prone to automation
The vulnerability of any job to automation is a combination of multiple factors. Critically, there must be adequate economic drivers, technological viability and business benefits to motivate innovators to invent new systems that automate work.
For instance, professions that have a higher volume of workers (retail salespersons or call-centre operators) or require a higher volume of information to be processed to effectively perform the job (equity traders or paralegals) are at risk of automation.
Meanwhile, jobs that feature a high variety of tasks and more variability between work inputs and outputs (doctors, architects, beauticians and social workers) are relatively safe from automation. These professions will be augmented, rather than replaced, by technology.
Technology’s impact on the Singapore workforce thus far
Given its highly educated, diligent and flexible workforce, Singapore has largely benefited from past waves of automation and computerisation. Through higher productivity and skills upgrading, local workers are able to enjoy steady career progression and rising wages.
In recent years, the policy to reduce reliance on foreign manpower has tightened the job market. This has resulted in accelerating technology development and adoption, which in turn, raised labour productivity. While the dual strategy of technology adoption and workforce development has enabled Singapore to constantly upgrade its economy, the outlook for local workers moving forward will be a more challenging one.
How to stay ahead of the game?
As the saying goes, “if you don’t join lunch, you become lunch”. Hence, Singaporeans must join – and, better still, aim to become the masters of – the digital revolution.
Here are the five principles for Singaporeans to manage their careers in the new era:
- Have a “business of one” mindset – Workers should not merely see themselves as job seekers but manage their own careers as though it is a business. They need to acquire an entrepreneurial mindset to constantly understand changing customer demands, exploit new opportunities, establish critical relationships and improve the value they bring to the market.
- Embody a value-creation ethos – It is no longer sufficient to “just do”. Employees need to innovate and help their companies transform into digital organisations. Doers must learn the art of imagination, innovation and invention to become effective innovators at their workplace. Keep asking “why is it done this way?” and then find a better way to do it.
- Have multi-functional competencies – In today’s highly volatile environment, it is risky to only have a single functional or domain specialisation. Instead, individuals should consider developing multifunctional skill sets. There are two advantages of being multi-functional. Firstly, there is greater career flexibility by being able to diversify between specialisations. Secondly, the intersection of specialisations brings lateral thinking, fresh ideas and unique differentiation to the table.
- Be a technology master – Whenever a new technology sets in, there is potential displacement of jobs. This is especially true for the next-generation of automation, which tends to be labour replacements rather than supplements. As technology upgrades, workers have to upgrade in tandem. They have to constantly safeguard this master-slave relationship or risk being replaced. Moving forward, this relationship will become more challenging to maintain as technology races ahead at an exponential rate.
- Always learn – In the innovation economy, creativity at the workplace is becoming more valued. Creativity is the ability to make new connections between seemingly unrelated fields or domains. Thus, it is no longer enough to learn narrowly and deeply within one’s own field or domain. Instead, we should embrace the “always be learning about everything” attitude. As Steve Jobs once said, “You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”
The future of work will arrive faster than most of us think. In this revolutionary shift, it is imperative for workers to adopt new mindsets, paradigms and competencies, and unlearn obsolete approaches.
Charlie Ang is the founding president of The Innovators Institute, co-founder of The Innovators Network, partner and head for Singapore at Kiatt (a global venture capital firm) and an Ambassador of SingularityU (Singapore), which is the worldwide alumni network of Silicon Valley-based Singularity University.