Automation and AI: An uncertain future for jobs in the MENA region

Amina Khairy
Thursday 1 Mar 2018

According to participants at Dubai’s Sixth World Government Summit, unless governments start acting now aspirations for a better future could turn into disappointments

Thinking about the future in a region where a number of countries have been conflict-torn for the past eight years and others economically shredded or simply watching in silence and hoping for things to get better (or worse if they are conspiring against others) may seem like a luxury. But trying to visualise that future is a must for those who intend to survive.

Survival will probably not be for the strongest, but for the fittest. And fitness means knowledge, planning, readiness and resilience. It was these things that thousands of futurists and “presentists” working for the future had in mind when they met in Dubai in the UAE for the Sixth World Government Summit.

Discussion to help shape the future of governments and the lives of citizens worldwide proceeded for three days at the summit under the patronage of Sheikh Mohamed bin Rashed Al-Maktoum, vice-president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of Dubai.

The summit accomplished an incredible job of not only giving a sneak peek at what lies ahead of us in terms of climate change, the lives of young people, how to deal with today’s challenges and opportunities, and, last but not least, the happiness of citizens, and in finding a vision of a well-planned future.

This future may well see the fading away of almost half of the current jobs in the Middle East region because of automation, and this means that governments should be working hard starting yesterday to meet this challenge. Twenty million full-time jobs worth $366.6 billion of wage income could be gone in the near future.

This means that the countries of the Middle East should be ready with well-devised plans to adapt to workforce automation, in addition to educating and training workers for jobs relevant to a highly automated future.

What this automated future means in terms of numbers is that 150 million people will leave their jobs and 300 million young people will be searching for work. The problem of creating new jobs started some years ago, and the gap between the number of available jobs and those looking for them is widening almost as we speak.

President of the World Bank Jim Yong Kim summarised the problem in his address at the summit by pointing to the fact that by 2030 this gap is expected to widen to 182 million people looking for jobs. With artificial intelligence and automation now wiping out many of the low-skilled jobs that have already been waning for some years, the problem is expected to increase.

Kim pointed out that as the world becomes more and more digitally interconnected, social media is also increasing people’s hopes and aspirations. But unless governments start acting now, these aspirations could turn into disappointments.

With 50 per cent of today’s jobs heading towards elimination because of automation and the increasing use of artificial intelligence, and 65 per cent of students expecting to do jobs in the future that do not exist today, we should ask ourselves whether our governments are doing enough to embrace such change?

It is good to know that the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is working hard to embrace the expected changes resulting from the emerging technology that will make millions of people redundant. Director-general of the WTO Roberto Azevedo said at the summit that older trade networks and the systems used to transport goods around the world were still needed, but the new digital consumerism was heavily impacting the retail market, making many existing jobs redundant.

“Digital empires such as [US retail platform] Amazon are rewriting how people shop and consume goods,” Azevedo said.

What good is technology if it does not serve humanity, however? Bill McDermott, CEO of the German software company SAP, noted that technology can only have real meaning if it serves humanity. He believes in “augmented humanity” and a future in which machine, computer and humanity work together to serve the greater good.

One of the “greater goods” touched upon at the summit were the new Dubai police robots that serve it by helping to ensure security. Automating jobs traditionally done by human beings, such as police work, is viewed by futurists as a good thing when robots do not replace humans, but let them do the more sophisticated, judgement-oriented work, leaving the daily grind to machines.

Last year, the Dubai Police Department revealed its first robot police officer whose duty is patrolling the city’s malls and tourist attractions. A robot police terminal can be used by the public to report crimes, pay fines, and get information via its chest-mounted touchscreen. The government in Dubai announced at the summit that its aim was for 25 per cent of the city’s police force to be robotic by the year 2030.

Frightening as it may sound, it seems that the issue for the future is not whether to resort to technology, automation, and robotising many existing aspects of life or not. Rather, it is how well the world can be prepared to do so. As McDermott put it in his presentation, “don’t fight it. Lean on it.”

One of those who has leant on the new technology and realised it is better to deal with it rather than wait to be mastered by it is the American musician and founding member of the hip hop band Black Eyed Peas Will I Am. Will I Am has decided to be an agent of change, and he has realised that when there are revolutions there can also be some panic. With the current Fourth Industrial Revolution underway, he has decided to be an agent of the upcoming change.

In 2009, Will I Am started the “I Am Angel Foundation” that works for education, inspiration and opportunity by offering scholarships and activities towards college preparation. Will I Am has realised that money and technology are not good things if people do not benefit from them. He uses computers to bring joy to people and uses his money to help educate them.

He said at the Dubai Summit that owing to his music he had been able to get his family and friends out from the ghettos in which they had lived. This had happened when he had used his money to help build schools, encouraging those who used them to gain a proper education and being a good investment in human intelligence rather than thinking only of artificial intelligence.

Is artificial intelligence a threat? Part of the answer seems to be that it is. The founder of the US news Website the Huffington Post (owned by Verizon Communications) and self-declared “burnout victim” of artificial intelligence Ariana Huffington said at the summit that in her view the way we are now working is not working.

She believes that people nowadays take better care of their phones than of their bodies. They know how much battery is left in their phones, but they have no idea how much battery is left in their bodies, she said. This can lead to depression, and the only way out is to tackle our “always on” mindset, she claimed.

A mindset that spares a space for happiness is part of the future, which was why Emirati Minister of State for Happiness and Well-being and Vice-Chair of the Summit Ohood Al-Roumi launched the UAE’s first Global Happiness Policy Report in Dubai. This sets out policies that can make a real difference to the well-being of humanity, she said, since people’s happiness is a benchmark for the efficiency of government as well as of private-sector performance. 

An unhappy future is one that is not worth living for or looking forward to, she said.

Looking into the future through Dubai’s World Government Summit may leave one wondering. It is human intelligence that created artificial intelligence, but now comes the day when humans are embarrassed to say that what they have created is threatening them. However, threats can be headed off and even switched into benefits if humanity decides to think, plan and act in advance.

No matter how much artificial intelligence seems to exceed its creator in terms of excellence, it is humans that should remain in control.

Human beings created smart phones, and they will probably go on to create even smarter phones and not the other way around. With human creativity comes passion, empathy and love. These, along with automation, robotics and intelligence, both human and artificial, are shaping a future that will hopefully be a happy one.

 *This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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