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The future (2)

/ 05:08 AM January 03, 2019

This is the conclusion of my column last week on technological advances we are seeing now, and what we will see in the coming years.

Coming our way are automatic, driverless cars. This was a science fiction thought a scant few years ago, but Elon Musk and Tesla have accelerated its introduction at an unbelievable rate. All the major car companies are shifting to electric-powered, automatic cars, planning to phase out the internal combustion engine totally within five to 10 years.

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Congress and the Department of Transportation, together with the increasingly important Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT), need to be researching what sort of laws will need to be introduced to sensibly control this development. As a sideline to this, how about smart traffic lights that can assess the traffic and adapt to it? They must exist soon; we need them, it’s frustrating to be stuck at a traffic light when no one is crossing in front of you.

Drones are also going to intrude into our lives in a very positive way, more and more rapidly and widely. You may now order goodies from Amazon and your items will be dropped at your doorstep, gently, by a drone. Delivery boys will lose their jobs.

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Job loss is going to be a major concern as artificial intelligence (AI) encroaches ever more intrusively into everything. Robots are already replacing waitresses in Tokyo and London. AI can answer your questions in many instances where a human was needed. Some, by no means all, of our 1.4 million young people in call centers are going to be replaced. Is anyone thinking about that? Under the DICT’s leadership, people in government need to.

As for jobs in factories, forget it. Manual labor will become robotic almost entirely. So the government’s focus on enticing manufacturers to build their plants here is good for the growth and independence of our economy, but it’s short term for jobs. Those jobs will become fewer and fewer.

An estimated 500,000 to 700,000 people enter the workforce every year; about 2.4 million are unemployed and need a job. Add to that who knows how many millions currently employed who are to be displaced by AI, and overseas Filipino workers who’d like to come home. It’s a crisis in the making—if it isn’t addressed now. The Philippines needs to put its efforts into developing sectors that still need people—real, live, living people.

Agriculture is the biggest opportunity. Some of it will be mechanized, but much of it will still find people more cost-efficient. At a rough guess, Philippine agriculture could be doubled. It could not only feed our people (which it can’t now), it could also export huge amounts of crops in high demand by a world where demand is increasing beyond the ability of supply to provide.

Tourism is another area where there’s little that can be taken away from people. Robot receptionists have been introduced in Japan, but it’s a small intrusion.

Health care is another. The loving attention of a Filipino nurse is hard to make in steel and plastic. Doctors may be at more risk. Machines are already proving better at diagnosing some diseases. And this can only get worse, or better, depending on your point of view.

Chefs will remain, but not cooks. A machine can cook a hamburger, but not an escargots de Bourgogne. Fast-food outlets can be mechanized. Robots are already serving hamburgers in Tokyo. Fine dining will still need people, but few enjoy that.

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Developing IT, programming and the like will still need humans, but those that are intelligent and trained for such tasks. Imagination and innovation will almost entirely still need a human brain. But AI will learn to do some of that, too. Is our education geared for it? Are our politicians preparing us for it? Not that I’ve seen. That and human empathy are what AI can’t reproduce. They are what our leaders should be researching and developing.

I see the DICT as the lead in this. The department is our country’s future, that’s why I lobbied so hard for its creation in the last administration. Thank heaven, President Aquino finally listened and agreed to sign the law. Now President Duterte has to make sure it does this humongous job of recognizing what the future will bring, and putting the Philippines in a lead position in it. The secretary of DICT has his work cut out for him. And Congress needs to put laws in place for the future.

Enjoy the coming year. Happy New Year.

E-mail: wallace_likeitis@wbf.ph

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