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HORIZONS

Artificial intelligence will upend the Philippines

/ 04:05 AM February 25, 2020

During a recent talk at Stanford University, I couldn’t resist quipping, “Everyone is busy here to make the rest of the world useless.” My latest talk in Palo Alto, the new haven for the “masters of the universe” amid the decline of the wolves of Wall Street, was supposedly about my latest book “The Indo-Pacific,” which chronicles the emerging US-China Cold War in the 21st century.

But standing before a mixed audience of tech experts, former military personnel, and academics, discussing the sweeping, overwhelming, and ultimately decisive impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on our lives was tantalizingly inevitable.

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Historian Yuval Noah Harari has warned that while the Industrial Revolution saw the creation of the capitalist bourgeoisie and working-class proletariat, we now confront a new social division between owners of AI and the majority “useless” class.

And newly emerging countries such as the Philippines, which have heavily relied on information and communications technology (ICT) investments, will be among the hardest hit in the not-so-distant future.

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The first realm of disruption is power. Leading experts such as Kai-Fu Lee perceptively argue that those who dominate the latest technological frontier will determine the future of power. In his groundbreaking work, “AI Superpowers” (2018), he argues that China and the Silicon Valley are more or less at a stalemate for the domination of AI.

Lee expects us to experience the full brunt of the AI revolution within 10-15 years, as the AI superpowers develop the algorithmic machines, which would transform the global military-industrial complex.

This is mainly because AI has crossed a critical threshold in recent years. The previous waves of technological innovation served as human intelligence augmentation (IA) mechanisms, primarily disrupting blue-collar labor. But now even the most prestigious professions are in peril.

According to Massachusetts Institute of Technology professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, we have now entered the “The Second Machine Age,” whereby the latest technological wave allows for automation of even advanced cognitive functions, including accounting and lawyering.

The shock to labor markets will be earthshaking. A pioneering study by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne of Oxford University estimates that “over the next decade or two,” up to 47 percent of jobs in the developed world are vulnerable to disruption. The developing world is no less vulnerable.

According to a study by the International Labour Organization covering Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam, up to 137 million jobs (56 percent) are at risk of automation. Up to 49 percent of employment in the Philippines could suffer the same fate. The engine of our national growth in the past two decades, namely the business process outsourcing industry, could see up to 80 percent employment dislocation.

But there are technological optimists like economists at the Asian Development Bank, who foresee the creation of new jobs by the new wave of the innovation. Think of Uber or Grab drivers. The main pitfall of techno-optimists, however, is how they dangerously discount the immense psychological stress brought about by technological disruption, increasingly precarious jobs, and rapid evisceration of life-time, purpose-driven careers, which gave meaning to the lives of billions of people in the past century.

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Countries such as the Philippines likely have around a decade or two to make necessary policy preparations as well as make the most out of existing opportunities provided by an increasingly fragile process of globalization. We simply can’t afford the toxic cocktail of mindless public policy, anachronistic styles of governance, and unhinged populism, which has afflicted much of the world in recent years.

The implications of AI, however, are fundamentally existential. In “Re-Engineering Humanity” (2018), Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger argue that AI is already reshaping our minds and patterns of behavior just as we invent next-generation algorithmic machines.

This is why a wide range of thinkers from Harari (“Homo Deus”) to Francis Fukuyama (“Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution”) and Slavoj Zizek (“Less Than Nothing”) are focusing on how AI will change our very experience and conception of being.

At some point, AI would know more about us than we would know about ourselves, including why we fall in love and with whom, based on physiological vitals and patterns of online and offline behavior. As Joseph Schumpeter, who best theorized “creative disruption,” noted: “History is a record of ‘effects’ the vast majority of which nobody intended to produce.”

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TAGS: artificial intelligence, Horizons, Richard Heydarian
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