Do Robots Dream of Human Skills?

Do Robots Dream of Human Skills?

by The HEAD Foundation

Imagine yourself as a receptionist, waking up one day to find that your job has been substituted by a computer who can deal with twice the number of customers as you can. What will happen to you?

Do you promptly undergo intensive skills-related courses, or will you simply be fired with no other career alternative?

Welcome to Industry 4.0.

Brave New World, Visited
A recent report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) identified the top ten skills (see below) needed in order to thrive by 2020, a time defined (largely) by the rise of artificial intelligence and machine learning. In particular, over one-third of skills that are deemed significant in the workforce today will be changed.
No, this is not some Terminator-style invasion by robots from the future, but a possibility of our core skills and jobs becoming obsolete as automatons and machines start making decisions for us.

Termed Industry 4.0, or the Fourth Industrial Revolution, advanced robotics and human-computer collaborations could vastly affect the way we work and put our futures at risk.

Top 10 Skills in 2015:
Complex Problem Solving
Coordinating with Others
People Management
Critical Thinking
Quality Control
Service Orientation
Judgment and Decision Making
Active Listening

Top 10 Skills in 2020:
Complex Problem Solving
Critical Thinking
People Management
Coordinating with Others
Emotional Intelligence
Judgment and Decision Making
Service Orientation
Cognitive Flexibility
Source: Future of Jobs Report, World Economic Forum


Who’s at risk?
Everyone, from white-collared business leaders to blue-collared workers. Technological literacy will become a key determinant of how an individual progresses in tandem with the changing nature of his job responsibilities.
On a non-technical aspect, skills like Quality Control and Active Listening will give way to Cognitive Flexibility and Emotional Intelligence by 2020. This means that workers who are strong in the former will have to adapt their skill sets to the latter or face possible retrenchment.

Perhaps Industry 4.0 will demand not just 10, but maybe the top 15 or 20 skills; to this, we should also posit the question of whether these skills are easily as upgradeable as technical skills.


How does Asia fit into this?

The 21st century is well known today as the Asian Century. But whether it stays that way in Industry 4.0 depends on the capabilities of citizens in Asian nations to develop new skill sets. Otherwise, this lack will excercebate threats to social cohesion and stability due to rising inequality and corruption.

We should consider the role of context, culture and developmental level in determining the future of skills. This is especially true for Asian societies as such traditions form the foundation of their identity, ethos, view of work and the role of skills in work.

By extension, home culture, society at large and views associated with work successes can impact on the variances in the nature and desirability of acquiring certain types of skills.

A technological approach should also be taken into account, if Asian companies are to figure out whether the way we work is effective by the time machines become the determinant of economic success.
Where does this bring Asia in Industry 4.0? Perhaps we should press further by asking:

  • How important are these skill sets in the WEF list to workers in developing Asian economies?
  • In what ways can workers be trained more effectively in these skill sets?
  • How would these new skill sets influence the opportunity and practice of work culture in Asia?
  • Where does education come in? What new paradigms, processes in Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET) are required to make school leavers ready for Industry 4.0?
  • Are current workshop and career guidance models enough for students and workers? Singapore’s recent SkillsFuture Credit scheme allows for Singaporeans master new skills for work, but whether it trains them for life effectively remains to be seen.

A proper discussion with these questions in mind may well create opportunities for both employer and employee alike, in overcoming the challenges that technological advancements may bring. As such, this calls for a closer inspection of the Forum list.

The Asian Century: Problematizing a Problem
The list creates the impression that these are skills (in order of merit) only for the workforce at the top of the value chain – the executive, managerial positions.
It is notable that the skill sets provided in the report seems to be from the viewpoint of employers. If so, problem-solving competencies as prescribed by employers may not be of much use to employees who do not have opportunities to apply these skills.

At the same time, not all countries in Asia are similar in how they shape job and economic interests. For instance, a country which operates on a State-centred model has its leaders actively determining a country’s economic direction.
Conversely, states that adopt a free-market approach like Singapore cannot outright dictate the jobs and skills that individuals should have.
Without proper analysis, the list fails to explain the nature of the labour force itself as division of labour is predicated by a diverse range of workers.
It is counter-intuitive to assume that because the Forum list is ranked in accordance to merit, skills such as Cognitive Flexibility are less important than Complex Problem Solving. In fact, both skills mutually complement each other for maximum work efficiency!

The question, then, is to query whether and how the top 10 skills affect existing economic and social divisions of labour.
With uncertainty borne out of globalization and technology, industries and governments in Asia must realise that the future is a lot more complicated than what the list reveals.

The more things change, the more they stay the same
On the whole, does it really matter?

Let us look at the list again: Barring two skill sets, nothing much else will change in the next 5 years. In other words, the time frame is too short to deduce any major change in economies across the board.

Rather than fizzle out and disappear, People Management, Critical Thinking and Creativity (among others) are as important and relevant as ever in 2020. Indubitably, robots still have some way to go to overtake the innate thinking capability of their human creators.

In addition, the diverse economies across Asian countries complicates the rigidity of the Forum list. A rising middle-class society in China might be adversely affected by the wage disruptions of Industry 4.0, but agrarian communities in Indonesia may not. Asian economic patterns are simply not the same as that in the West.
Ergo, is there really a need to enforce a paradigm shift in skills for the workforce to keep pace? For all the doomsday scenarios people may attempt to highlight, the worry and panic about losing out to robots may well be unfounded.

Even if some skills and jobs really do disappear, the bone of contention is whether the skills as underlined in the list are indeed the critical skills of 2020, depending on who is learning them and how these skills are learnt.

The HEAD Foundation Commentary is a platform to provide timely and, where appropriate, policy-relevant commentary of topical issues and contemporary developments. The views expressed by the authors are solely their own and do not reflect opinions of The HEAD Foundation.

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