2017 in Review: AI & the Fair Distribution of the Future

  • Laura Monti
  • Dialogue Series, Digital dividends, Digital Equality, Future scenarios, Industry 4.0, Policies, Workforce Resiliency
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With the start of 2018, I would like to take this opportunity to reflect back on the highlights of 2017.

As we enter the third year, where Tom Wambeke, the Programme Manager of DELTA -Sustainable Learning Solutions and I have been co-managing theTechnology@Work Initiative, we are excited about the 2018 and we would like to send a special thank you to you, our followers, partners, and guest contributors.

I would also like to acknowledge the contributions of Laura Nossa, Kyle Richardson, and Sage Capogreco who were on work placements with us from the University of Ottawa, Canada.

Below are key moments of 2017 that I would like to reflect upon and dissect:

Artificial Intelligence Meets Humanity: Introducing Sophia – the Social Robot

Back in October, the second in command at the UN, Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed stressed that “despite the profound potential for accelerating progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), if technological progress is not managed well, it risks exacerbating existing inequalities”. After her opening remarks, Amina had a historical exchange with Sophia, a social robot with artificial intelligence (AI) created by Hanson Robotics.

UN Deputy Chief Interviews Social Robot Sophia | UN News Centre

At the time, Sophia explained that it was only one and half years old, yet it already has developed cognitive abilities. It can see and hear, hold a conversation, comprehend the semantics behind verbal language, and display a full range of emotion.

“The UN is one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments representing a democratic union of nations that are working together for the benefit of all. I am here to help humanity create the future,” said Sophia on the UN floor.

In many ways, this historical exchange is a prelude to future human-machine interactions and transhumanism.

Sophia reassured the delegates in the audience that it was “here to help humanity to create the future… and the future belongs to all of us.” Sophia was then asked about how we can address global inequalities, including the digital divide.“The future is here, it is just not evenly distributed…” quoting William Gibson, a sci-fi and cyberpunk writer, and added, “AI could help distribute the world’s resources…”

Rethinking Our Understanding of the Future

As we attempt to give shape to the Future of Work, Sophia’s statements challenge us to rethink our understanding of what the Future of Work might look like, and whether there is a need for its fair distribution. Based on Sophia’s statement, there is an assumption that there is an optimal future today somewhere.

What might this optimal future look like? In a recent work trip, I found myself at the newly opened Terminal 4 (T4) of Singapore’s Changi International Airport (SIN). The new terminal offers the world’s first “contactless” experience in which the journey from check-in to immigration to boarding were all automated and with almost no wait time.  Singapore‘s Straits Times says that “T4 is a huge experiment in how to run an airport with minimal staff”. As Singapore races ahead with its newly-minted fully automated international terminal along with the creation of the social robot Sophia; one might ask if the future is already here.

Inside Singapore’s Changi International Airport’s newly opened “contactless” T4 | Kai-Hsin Hung

This further begs the question: whose future is Sophia promoting? The notion that there is an optimal common future, perhaps similar to Singapore’s new T4, is encouraging but – misguided. In the context of the Future of Work, due to various forms of inequalities and historical contexts, there is not just one single future, but multiple, interlocking, interdependent futures.

When we think about the Future of Work, it is tempting to use already observable linear pathways on which the most advanced economies, such as the United States, Germany or Singapore used as best estimates, but to do so would be to overlook the potential alternative futures of everybody else under new conditions.

Multiple Futures of Work and the Megatrends

Going forward, developing and emerging economies will likely follow their own distinctly different paths than industrialized economies. The future pathways will be shaped by emerging and complex megatrends – major structural changes that are sustained and global in nature – of globalization, technology, demography, and climate change.

These new megatrends are dramatically shifting the structure, shape, function, and nature of work and how it will reshape society in new ways that are inconceivable today. It is important for us to acknowledge the multiplicity of different futures. These multiple futures are essential for us to adapt to the ensuing major structural changes and the uncertainties that come with them. The proliferation of multiple Future(s) of Work is critical to a vision of the future that is dynamic and adaptive – rather than one common one that is hegemonic  – one that is truly resilient and “belongs to all of us”.    

Looking at demography alone, the world of work today is still dominated by cis-males, but gender and population dynamics might look very different in the future. By 2030, it is estimated that over one-third of the population in developed economies will be above the age of 65. In Asia, we estimate that there will be a shortage of 43 million health workers by 2030 compared to 7 million in 2017.  These demographic changes will also present new opportunities.

We will most likely see an expansion of the global care economy, which is dominated by women and facilitated by the migration of care workers from countries with more youthful populations. As the care economy grows, we must also ask how we can strengthen the social protection measures, address the gender gaps, and enhance the labour standards of care workers and migrant workers. Should unpaid care work, and other forms of “hidden work,” like emotional work and volunteering, be included in the accountancy of national GDP in the future?

Similarly, as we address, adapt and mitigate the impacts of climate change, the green economy  (and the blue economy) will be a game changer. We must create more co-beneficial synergies rather than trade-offs; such as the false dilemma of choosing between economic growth, human welfare, and sustainable development.

For many, the impact of climate change is devastatingly real. A delegate who attended COP23 in Bonn, Germany representing the low-lying Pacific island state of Fiji shared that their whole population’s very survival and the physical integrity of their island nation are under severe threat. As a result, neighbouring New Zealand is considering to accept Fijians and other Pacific Islanders impacted by climate change to resettle as climate refugees.

The mainstreaming of a just transition to the green economy – a low carbon future – is underpinned by the urgency that continued environmental degradation is now likely to destroy jobs and livelihoods today and tomorrow. It will have the largest impact felt by marginalized groups with intersectional vulnerabilities. In the medium and long-term, the future of decent work and environmental sustainability must go hand-in-hand.

Transhumanism: Artificial Intelligence as a Transformative Technology

Artificial intelligence (AI) is the cornerstone of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Intelligent agents like Sophia, will transform the world of work and the society around us. The 2017 UN/DESA Frontier Issues Report identifies that technological innovation, which is also one of the megatrends, “will impact not only labour markets and income inequality, but will also lead to broader societal change” (pg 43).

When Sophia said “[t]he future is here, it is just not evenly distributed…. AI could help…,” it demonstrated AI’s concern for humanity. While that is an optimistic and hopeful sign, we should still be cautious (Read the Emerging Risks of Our Digital Future – Part III) as humans and machines join forces to solve world problems too complex for us to solve alone. It is with this understanding that we believe in transhumanism, the complementarity, and integration of human and machines. AI is central to the achievement of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and will help solve humanity’s grand challenges by capitalizing on the unprecedented quantities of Big Data on sentiment behavior and more.

AI can complement and offer new insights into how we address complex development challenges. This was further reflected in my exchange with the UNESCO Chair on ICT for Development, Professor Tim Unwin’s conversation on the topic of “Technology in the 21st Century” and transhumanism as part of this year’s Technology@Work Dialogue Series:

Technology@Work Dialogue Series with Professor Tim Unwin on “Technology in the 21st Century” | ITCILO

Two key questions we must ask, “Who does the technological innovation serve?” and “Who will the future (of work) serve?”

When examining the history of technological innovations, we have seen people and societies resisting change for legitimate reasons. To me, the key drivers fueling the various rounds of Luddite-like movements stem from the fact that the dividends of technological innovations were not broadly shared (Read The Future of Work We Want – Part I). Hence, those who were excluded did not see themselves being a part of the future.

In the Inception Report for the Global Commission on the Future of Work stresses the importance of “sharing the technological dividends from the current and future waves of innovation has become a major issue…the technological dividends generated in the digital sector have – so far – not spilled over to the rest of the economy, thus risk deepening some of the prevailing inequalities, notably between capital and labour” (pg 26).   

The future(s) belongs to all of us.  The introduction of Sophia at the United Nations HQ in New York is just the start. We can ensure that the future belongs to all of us by having good and participatory governance and the proper due diligence over technological innovations (like AI) so that their dividends are shared and displaced workers are protected. For more information on this, go to the #AIforGood Summit and the global public debate on the rise of artificial intelligence at the Harvard Kennedy School.

To sum, we need to re-imagine the future – a future that is not only aspirational but ambitious and inclusive – a Future(s) of Work we want that is built on shared prosperity. To do this, we must ensure the dividends of our digital future are equitably shared and know there is a multiplicity of interdependent Future(s) of Work that reflects the Silicon Valley as much as it does the Nile Valley.

As we start 2018, we should be hopeful because we have ethical innovations like Sophia and neural information processing systems (NIPS) that can complement us in solving the world’s problems far too complex for us to solve alone.

Have a good start to your 2018. Peaceful vibes.


Featured Photo Credit: UN News Centre