Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The case against techno-pessimism

Fear of technological change is as old as technology itself. Socrates famously worried that the spread of writing would enfeeble the human mind by encouraging forgetfulness. Centuries later, the machine-breakers of the industrial revolution attempted to hold back the tide of automation in a doomed attempt to preserve traditional craft production.

As the rate of change accelerates with advances in fields like robotics, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence (AI), these anxieties are coming to the fore once again. Since the publication of Klaus Schwabs seminal “The Fourth Industrial Revolution” in 2016, barely a month has passed without a new report on the huge challenges emerging technologies pose for our future.

Many are troubled by the thought that technological progress combined with increased rates of population growth could result in mass unemployment and social instability. A much-quoted study from the University of Oxford estimates that 47 percent of U.S. jobs are threatened by automation over the next two decades. Another report published by McKinsey has predicted that as many as 800 million jobs could be lost worldwide by the 2030.

This debate, once the preserve of academic specialists, has entered the popular consciousness at a time when economic insecurity is already widespread. With changing work patterns and the disappearance of traditional retailers from many town centers, people are beginning to understand the scale of the transformation that is underway. They worry that the march of the machines could undermine the foundations of human society.

But is this pessimism justified? Although futurists like Martin Ford and Silicon Valleys techno-evangelists argue that todays technology is significantly more disruptive and fundamentally different from everything that came before, we should be skeptical of worst-case scenarios. Predictions of social catastrophe have accompanied every period of rapid technological change and have invariably turned out to be wrong.

In addition to liberating time, technology also liberates resources by continually lowering the cost of existing goods and services.

It is far from clear that AI, for example, will be more disruptive than the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century or the replacement of horses by cars and typewriters by computers. Nor is there any reason to accept the “Luddite fallacy” that presents technology as a threat to overall levels of employment. The Asian Development Bank reports that in Asia, AI is already creating more jobs than it destroys. Today, as in the past, techno-pessimists err in assuming that technology is the only thing that changes, while society remains static and helpless. In reality, our ability to adapt and take advantage of technological change has been as constant as technological change itself.

Just as technology disrupts established patterns of life and work, it also creates opportunities to fulfil new needs and wants. It is expanding leisure time, for example, increasing workplace productivity and reducing time spent on domestic chores. Far from remaining idle, people use this freedom to pursue new interests and activities, generating demand for new goods and services in the process. The most obvious example of this has been the spectacular growth of entertainment industries, particularly over the last 50 years.

As we watch the World Cup in Russia, it is worth remembering that the origins of professional football can be traced back to the 1870s, when male factory workers in Britain secured a half-day holiday on Saturdays. Clubs responded to the emergence of a mass audience and the demand for paid entertainment by arranging regular fixtures in purpose-built stadiums. Football today is a global industry worth tens of billions of dollars, with the World Cup alone expected to generate revenues of more than $6 billion.

In addition to liberating time, technology also liberates resources by continually lowering the cost of existing goods and services. The money freed up in this way provides a stimulus to innovation and growth in the form of new investment and consumer spending. Yet the decline of old industries is too often seen in zero-sum terms.

Of course, rapid technological change always brings short-term adjustment costs, some of which fall disproportionately on different nations and sections of society. This calls for international cooperation and well-designed public policies that enable us to mitigate and share these costs fairly. Governments, businesses, trade unions and civil society need to work out solutions together. But this cannot be done on the basis that technology is the problem and stopping it the answer. Everyone loses from the economics of stagnation.

No one is more adaptable and agile than small entrepreneurs. And large companies can only adapt if they stay true to their modest beginnings and maintain a culture of entrepreneurship at all levels.

Our real task is to prepare for the changes that are coming. As Charles Darwin once observed: “It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones responsive to change.” Those who fail to take this on board risk the corporate obsolescence of the likes of Blockbuster or Kodak, two former giants who failed to understand the implications of digital technology for their business models.

Having worked for large international companies prior to setting up my own businesses two decades ago, one of which is a direct selling company, I have learned one important lesson: no one is more adaptable and agile than small entrepreneurs. And large companies can only adapt if they stay true to their modest beginnings and maintain a culture of entrepreneurship at all levels.

None of the U.S.s five largest companies by market capitalization existed 50 years ago. Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon all built their success on the back of the computing and the internet revolution, and were led by inspiring entrepreneurs. Those who did not believe in this revolution, or failed to adapt, have now been forgotten. To ensure that our job markets ride the wave of technological change, corporations both large and small must embrace these new innovations as they emerge, and above all foster an entrepreneurial spirit.

The fourth industrial revolution has started. Instead of worrying about the consequences, we need to focus on the opportunities. Human society has always risen to the challenge of technological change. We should have every confidence in our ability to do so again.

Vijay Eswaran is a Malaysian entrepreneur, philanthropist and author. He is the founder and executive chairman of the QI Group of Companies, a multinational conglomerate, and chairman of Quest International University in Malaysia.

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