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Keeping the focus on human beings, and jobs, in today's AI-driven world

artificial intelligence is touching and transforming the world

Keeping the focus on human beings, and jobs, in today's AI-driven world

NOT a day passes without new instances, out in the media, of how artificial intelligence is touching and transforming the world, in everything from daily tasks at home, at work, at play, to the more rarefied reaches of, say, galaxy explorations and other esoteric scientific endeavours.

Take the world of finance and banking. Of 100 North American trading and foreign-exchange firms surveyed for a TradeTech FX conference in Miami, 94 said they aimed to automate more of their foreign-exchange trading operations in the next three years. The US$5.1 trillion-a-day currency market is embracing in a big way electronic and algorithmic trading.

Here in Singapore, OCBC Bank's home and renovation loan chatbot Emma has closed more than S$70 million in home loans since the start of the year. The bank is also working with a fintech firm to tap AI and machine learning to combat financial crime.

While stories of the power of AI intrigue and inspire awe, analyses of its economic impact - in employment terms - carry some Darwinian overtones. A piece on AI in these pages recently spelt out the impact: Half of current job roles will disappear by 2025, as will many companies and industries, according to a recent study.

New digital business models are why over half of the companies on the Fortune 500 have disappeared since year 2000. And analysts say the impact on business from AI is still underestimated.

Physicist Stephen Hawking is rather more unequivocal. AI, the Cambridge professor warned at a tech conference on Tuesday, has the potential to destroy civilisation and could be the worst thing that has ever happened to humanity.

Be that as it may, Singapore's latest two industry transformation maps (ITMs) are remarkable on the jobs front, to the extent that AI plays more than a peripheral role in the future of both the financial services and infocomm media (ICM) sectors.

The ICM blueprint identifies AI as one of four frontier technologies that will grow Singapore's digital economy and enable its Smart Nation vision. But while the narrative around AI speaks mostly of displaced workers and lost jobs, Singapore's embrace of the ICM industry seeks to create thousands of jobs, even as it drives AI adoption in a big way - by supporting budding AI enterprises, training AI professionals, updating regulations around data, and growing the AI ecosystem.

With the sector's value-add projected to grow 6 per cent a year - twice as fast as the overall economy - the ITM sees the infocomm media industry creating another 16,000 jobs by 2020, adding to its current workforce of 194,000. Most of the new jobs - a good 13,000 - are expected to be professional, managerial, executive and technician (PMET) roles.

Likewise, the financial services ITM promises to add a net 4,000 jobs a year, including 1,000 in fintech, via its plans and business strategies to boost Singapore's strengths in wealth and fund management, and forex trading, and its status as a leading global financial centre.

One key plank of the ITM is to spur tech adoption for greater efficiency, and banks are already investing in technology to automate processes. Yet, at the launch of the ITM, the financial sector was told to re-train, and not retrench, when jobs are at risk. It may be easier said than done, but amid visions of, in some quarters, a dystopian AI-driven future, keeping a focus on the human factors across society would arguably become increasingly important.

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