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Risk of Unemployment In the AI Age
All sides should realize the urgency of the risk from AI
By Lan Xinzhen | NO. 05 FEBRUARY 1 , 2018

One year after the opening of the first cashier-free supermarket in China in 2016, most Chinese cities now have this kind of supermarket. While self-service stores make it more convenient for consumers, they also pose risks to cashiers, whose jobs may thus vanish.

The risk is not limited to those working in supermarkets; people in various posts will have to bear the impact of artificial intelligence (AI). Take drivers for example. Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen have already begun to test driverless autos on certain road sections, and thus driverless cars are expected to be widely used in the future. Another example is translators. Machine translation is now being increasingly used. Even doctors, journalists and poets, jobs that involve emotional communication, are also likely to be replaced by AI.

Poems are universally recognized as a product of human emotions and sentiments. Most people thus believe that machines will never be able to replace poets. On December 15, 2017, in a program aired by China Central Television, thanks to its excellent performance, a robot beat three young people who had won prizes in national poem contests.

This is a surprising result. When robots have triumphed over humankind in Go and chess competitions, the credit is put on their strong computing power. However, poem creating implies that robots are able to "think." In this sense, AI can absolutely become powerful enough to replace human beings in many posts.

The fourth industrial revolution that is based on technologies like cloud computing and big data will have a profound impact on the way of living. However, it may bode ill for job seekers.

Actually, the world has already experienced surging unemployment caused by technological progress. In the third industrial revolution, the wide use of automation equipment in factories led to rounds of mass job cut which were followed by labor protests and social disturbances.

The ongoing fourth industrial revolution is expected to make an even heavier blow to employment than the previous ones. Both white collar and blue collar workers' jobs are likely to be grabbed by robots.

China is now at the global frontier of the fourth industrial revolution. Digital technology keeps reshaping economic patterns and restructuring the value chains of different sectors. The Chinese Government's big data strategy, the huge number of netizens it has and the support of abundant capital help sustain China's leading role in the fourth industrial revolution, but this also boosts the risks of unemployment in the country.

A joint report by Citibank and Oxford University released in February 2016 predicts that the proportion of jobs to be replaced by robots is 47 percent in the United States, 35 percent in Britain, and 77 percent in China.

Whether this prediction is accurate or not, we should be alert to the possibility.

Employment has always been a major task for the Chinese Government. The policy of reform and opening up adopted in the late 1970s has led to enhanced productivity and a surplus of labor in the rural areas, and in order to help these people get employed, China began to develop labor-intensive businesses. Labor dividends are thought to have contributed to China's economic development. However, workers in these businesses will bear the brunt of this round of industrial revolution. Thus, the risk of their unemployment must be paid enough attention.

Nevertheless, probably there should not be too much panic when we face up to the surge of AI, as technological progress, while eliminating some jobs, will also create new jobs, as is proven by history.

However, before new jobs are created to relieve the unemployment pressure from AI's rise, the government, enterprises and individuals should realize the urgency of this issue. To save for a rainy day will help to minimize the negative impact. As for individuals, none of us can change the course and impact of AI technology, but we can make a change to ourselves, at least by upgrading our knowledge, so as to better cope with the situation when the day finally comes.

Copyedited by Chris Surtees

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