The prospects and power of growth

 Published in: The Daily Star on September 26, 2018
The prospects and power of growth

Saadia Zahidi (C), managing director and head of Social and Economics Agendas of World Economic Forum, speaks at a press conference on "The Future of Jobs Report" during the Summer Davos Forum held in Tianjin, north China, September 19, 2018. Photo: LI RAN/XINHUA

The high-speed train from Hong Kong to Mainland began four days ago. It will now only take 50 minutes to reach Guangzhou from Hong Kong. So one could effectively have lunch at Guangzhou and be back by the end of the day, if one so desires.

The new bullet trains to southern China are far quicker than existing cross-border rail links, and long-haul services will cut journey times to Beijing from 24 hours to nine hours.

There have been critics arguing about not having followed the law of Hong Kong to the letter. Apparently, boundaries are not supposed to be crossed so easily, so simply with all that ease and so fast. According to Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, China’s national laws do not apply to the city apart from in limited areas. At Hong Kong’s end, its rights, including freedom of speech, are protected by a deal made earlier in 1997. At China’s end, it has ascended to a position of global supremacy.

Your columnist was in China when the high-speed train was officially announced and incidentally, as luck would have it, she was in Hong Kong when the service began. There was a lot of excitement around it. China has undeniably fast-tracked its infrastructure journey focusing on bringing the region together. Establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Bank has proved China’s point of ascendancy and many including Russia have joined its platform. However, this too has also come under critical examination. The reference to China’s “debt colonialism” or debt diplomacy is all over the globe. The most recent reference can be made to Sri Lanka’s financial failure forcing it to formally hand over the strategic port of Hambantota to China on a 99-year lease in a deal that government critics have said threatens the country’s sovereignty.

Way back post-1995, China was building cities overnight out of literally empty spaces, and today it makes sense to imagine the next China and what it’s all set to conquer. Thus in spite of any criticism, your columnist is happy to travel to China whenever presented with an opportunity.

So last week, when the chance came to fly to Tianjin to attend Summer Davos, she gladly accepted and became a happy party to witness what China really means today. Tianjin was the destination where Summer Davos was bringing around 2,000 people together who would collaborate, exchange ideas and celebrate tomorrows filled with artificial intelligence and automation. However, it wasn’t just business. Even ethics and women’s empowerment had been chalked out to give the platform a more balanced appearance. Unfortunately, the discourses on ethics and women’s empowerment from a western perspective seemed a bit removed from our part of the world. But then, lack of representation from our end is to be blamed for that disconnect.

So, what was Summer Davos offering in Tianjin that no other part of Asia could have done? It offered us a glimpse of a melting pot, where ideas came together and found a new home. Discussions on different hubs marked the character of the forum. One session on the agility of ethics and the place it should hold in our future captivated much attention. While governance is related to ethics, the panel concluded that societal engineering should now decide what principles humanity would like to put in place for the future and what the penalties would be if accountability and ethics fail. Much to our delight, the session also questioned whether it was right to bring in technology to industries where humans would suffer.

Following this, another session on the big picture of inequality, once again, drew attention to the Third World reality. In spite of China being 40 times richer since 1970s, in spite of 700 million being lifted out of poverty, inequality in China is up. One percent Chinese have a third of all wealth. In America the top one percent has 40 percent of the country’s wealth. After all, it is a country where it takes a billion dollars to be elected as the president and at least ten million to become a congressman. There is millions and billions of dollars’ worth lobby power behind that position. Eventually, the session linked freedom and democracy to inequality and drew a picture that the world cannot deny. It is the same world where there are nine million deaths due to pollution, 15 times larger than those resulting from war and murder.

But have our current afflictions stopped the world from evolving to the next tech level? No. The next level is all set for AI. A tree caught our attention at the World Economic Forum event. The tree that was standing where delegates were lining up just to experience being soaked in the soil, smelling the earth. That was apparently a true VR (virtual reality) experience. All one had to do was carry a sensory, vibrating backpack and one would be able to experience things otherwise not possible in the world of virtual reality.

How good is AI going to be for us? Do we have the skill set to face the potential challenges? A lot of talk is currently ongoing about forecasting humanity being faced with the aggression of AI and automation. According to one particular session at the conference, by 2022, everyone would need 101 days of learning for re-skilling and adaptation to the new world where first movers like financial investors and services will use 23 percent of humanised robots, automotive and aerospace supply chain will use 37 percent of stationary robots, oil and gas will use 19 percent of aerial and underwater robots, and automotive, aerospace supply chain will use 33 percent of non-humanoid land robots. While in 2018, 71 percent of task hours are being done by humans and the rest 29 percent by machines, by 2022, 58 percent task hours will be done by humans and the rest 42 percent by machines and by 2025, man task hours will be down to 48 percent and those of machines will be up to 52 percent.

Amongst the ones to be jobless first are data entry clerks, accounting clerks, assembly and factory workers, customer service workers, auditors, and general and operational managers. This prompted a fierce discussion on the impact of the human cost. What would happen to the old economy 20-30 years from now? Will wealth be redistributed and will the wealthy be taxed more? Will universal income become inevitable? These were the questions which were addressed but not necessarily answered. But then again, who has the human intelligence or intuition to answer now for a world that’s going to be taken over by the powers of artificial intelligence in a decade or two? Almost none.

In Tianjin, Jack Ma, Alibaba’s founder, while urging all to avoid anxiety, wondered whether machine intelligence will outsmart us or if human wisdom will cease to grow.

One point is clear though. Right and timely policy support can help us all avert the disaster. Just as China once did to promote women’s education and grew a huge pool of female entrepreneurs, can we also take education and interest to a completely new level? Can we equip our low-level manufacturing workers to face the extinction challenge that AI will deliver in less than a decade?

Point is, no, we are still not ready.

And, no Alexa, we don’t need you till we are. Not just yet.

(Alexa is the newest product from Amazon that acts as one’s personal assistant, a step up from Apple’s Siri.)