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The Future Of Work In Asia-Pacific

Boiled Down
  • Future-proofing human workers is about more than hard skills; we need to encourage students to think creatively across disciplines, and start valuing “softer” skills.
  • New technologies and business models have the potential to further entrench social inequality — this has to be addressed in solutions, or those divides will only grow.
  • Automation for its own sake isn’t the answer. Companies need to look at which areas stand to benefit from human empathy and creativity, and restructure roles accordingly.

How do advances in artificial intelligence and automation stand to affect the way we work and live our lives? At Adobe’s Think Tank event in Sydney, thought leaders from the worlds of technology and innovation discuss what Asia-Pacific’s workplaces and employees might look like in 20 years’ time.

What to automate, and what to leave to people?

The Australian government reports that as many as 40 per cent of jobs will be impacted by automation within the next 15 years. The panellists all immediately agree that going full steam ahead and using AI and robotics to automate jobs simply because we can is unwise; a more nuanced conversation needs to be had first about the sense of purpose which human beings derive from work.

“In post-independence India, it’s a point of pride to have a job and work, to provide for yourself and your family,” says Harlina Sodhi, Head of Culture & Capability at IDFC Bank. “And in agricultural areas, it’s seen as a matter of legacy.” Author and management consultant Abhijit Bhaduri adds that in a collectivist society like India, “work is a source of identity not just for you, but for your family.” Therefore, a layoff doesn’t just affect the economic security of the individual and their family, but also in some instances, their social standing. Automation for its own sake would overlook the social impact of such displacement.

“We need to get a handle on what humans can bring that is unique, what you can technologize, and how can you use both of them really well,” says Dr Fiona Kerr, Professor of Neural & Systems Complexity at Adelaide University. “What kind of relationship do we want to have with technology, and why do we buy into that particular technology in the first place?”

So it’s not a case of asking ‘human or robot?’ but rather a case of asking which context requires which. “There’s a severe over-optimism that technology is going to save the world,” says Shiao-Yin Kuik, Director of The Thought Collective: “But seriously, if you’re dying in a hospice, would you rather have a human or a robot holding your hand?” Kerr agrees that in those vulnerable moments, the neurophysiological benefits of human touch and eye contact can and should be considered significant enough to outweigh the efficiency of a robotic healthcare worker. She adds, though, that outside of those moments where patients require human contact and reassurance, we can examine what can be automated, and make informed decisions.

Reskilling workers means rethinking education as a whole.

“Babies born today are likely to live to 100; the lifecycle of what we know is shrinking, but we’re going to live longer,” says Su-Yen Wong, Chairman of Nera Telecommunications. “People have to be able to learn and relearn over their lifetime.” The challenge here is that flexibility and improvisation aren’t traits that are necessarily fostered by existing educational institutions. “There’s going to be devastation for people who are unprepared,” says Bhaduri. “We debate how to innovate, but not about how to re-skill people.”

Kuik believes that in order to future-proof education, we must go back to basics, and cultivate a way of thinking which is less rigid. “There’s a huge distinction between teaching someone to think mathematically, and getting them to just pass an exam,” she says. “If you have someone who can think mathematically, artistically, engineering-wise, that’s a very powerful person. The problem is, a lot of education systems are not creating that result or rewarding that behaviour.”

This holistic approach to education is just as important, the panel suggests, as nurturing talent in STEM fields. “I think constructivism gives students a great mental framework to approach solving problems with all the tools at hand,” says Dr Joseph Sweeney, Advisor at IBRS. “It’s a thinking methodology, not just about teaching kids to code. I actually think we’re going to see less coding jobs in the near future.”

Kuik and Kerr believe that in addition to complex thinking, workplaces should be seeking employees with empathy and interpersonal skills, which have historically been underappreciated even though it has been proven time and again that they contribute to the social capital of a working environment. Not to mention, as Kuik puts it, “complex thinking people can cause all kinds of problems if they don’t know how to relate to others!”

This brings up another question; which skills do we prioritise, and which do we overlook? Sarah Kaine, Associate Professor at UTS Business School, points out that a lot of the time, we have a tendency to gender competencies centred around care, which results in financial inequity in these professions, compared to analytically-focused industries like finance or law. “I’d like to see a realignment of values,” she says.

Solutions will vary depending on region and culture 

“There’s an element of choice in work for some of us, but for plenty of people in Asia-Pac, there isn’t,” says Mark Henley, Director of Transformation & Digital Strategy APAC at Adobe. Socioeconomic context can’t be ignored.“It’s important to have perspective,” says Wong. “We’re talking about AI and robotics, but there are still regions in the world where electricity or a tractor are considered disruptive technologies. It’s a really broad spectrum.”

It is easy to have a heavily Western-skewed outlook when it comes to these technologies. But culture plays a huge role in how technology is adopted and used in a society. For instance, we have seen a high uptake of bots in China and Japan, but less so in other Asian countries.

“A lot of the discourse around technology is about individual empowerment, how do I become my physical and mental best,” says Kaine. “We’ve seen the development of that technology in some very Western, individualistic circumstances, and that’s quite a clash with some cultures.”

“In a lot of Asian countries, it’s the group and not the individual that counts,” says Wong. “There’s a huge race to do what is possible, an East vs. West competition to see who can come up with these solutions… but to what end? What are we going to do with all that free time?”

If the solution doesn’t work for everyone, it doesn’t work at all.

“As Western society has become increasingly materialistic, we can feed and clothe ourselves fairly cheaply, yet the cost of healthcare has skyrocketed,” says Henley. “Achieving that standard of living still evades many people.”

Evolving business models might purport to offer a greater variety of opportunities to workers, but Kaine points out that they are still exclusionary to some extent, whether by design or not: “If you’re a freelance architect and you’re in demand, the gig economy is working for you. If you’re a cleaner or a driver, or doing odd jobs, it’s not working in the same way. We need to recognise that labour segmentation takes place in organisations and across the broader economy.”

“It’s not just a question of ‘what will technology do’; this is still us making decisions,” says Kerr. “A company could take the gig economy model and pay workers to do tasks that can’t be automated, and have them all on short term, low paid contracts.” The gig economy is causing closed opportunity markets, and the panel agrees that the removal of representation and rights for individuals is probable; and it will be workers without a university education, from lower ends of the socioeconomic bracket, who will be affected the most.

“We say we don’t know where this technology is going, but that’s patently false,” says Sweeney. “What nobody gets right is how do people then use that technology, and what are the social ramifications?” As Kaine puts it, you can’t plan for uncertainty or ambiguity, but inequality doesn’t happen by accident. “Business models themselves aren’t neutral, and neither is technology as it’s evolved,” she says. “It’s used in particular ways. We shouldn’t assume that there’s this neo-classical neutrality to the market of technology.”

Ultimately, the panel remains optimistic about the future of work in Asia-Pacific, although they acknowledge that there is a lot of hard work ahead. “I think it’s important that we not decouple work from life, business from society, technology from humanity,” says Wong. Sodhi advocates the inclusion of underrepresented voices in reshaping company practices, especially women. Bhaduri’s “first, second and third recommendation” are all to rethink education. And finally, Henley advises businesses to “rehumanise” their organisations, and reaffirms that the coming avalanche of technology can have an undoubtedly positive influence — but it all depends on how we choose to act.

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