GOTCHA By Jarius Bondoc (The Philippine Star), Feb 24, 2017
Two years ago when a vacancy occurred in a Hong Kong firm’s board of directors, they appointed an algorithm. The robot called Vital gets no executive pay, and is fed only large amounts of data. In microseconds it picks up on market trends “not immediately obvious to humans.” That actually was part of a stunt by Deep Knowledge Venture to publicize its strength in research. The corporation is a pioneer user of artificial intelligence (AI) in its pharmaceutical business. But sitting a machine as “equal member” in the boardroom forebodes that all our jobs will one day be taken over by robots. Vital has “decided” the acquisition of a rival company and the launch of an aging-related drug.
If AI computers are replacing human brainwork, then all the more manual labor. Early this month in US capitals was unveiled an android that can carry up to 15 kg of load for eight battery hours at 35 kph. “Gita” is the size and shape of a drum, with two slightly bigger wheels on each side. For now it can only whirr a few paces ahead or behind its human master, on signals from a stereoscopic waist belt, The Economist reports. Handy for lugging groceries, books, or tools. But the objective of Italian maker Piaggio, of Vespa scooters fame, is unmanned deliveries to online shoppers. Tests are underway remotely to control fleets of up to a hundred such carrier ’bots at a time.
Three rival prototypes were fielded weeks ahead in European cities. Most promising is a six-wheeled auto-suitcase by Estonian roboticist Starship, owned by two of the founders of Skype. Dozens of the yet unnamed automatons have been test-run for tens of thousands of km, and met up with a million people with no accidents. Once enabled by electronic sensors and maps to avoid barriers, cross streets, and turn corners, they would revolutionize logistics. Immediately, though, they would drive deliverymen and golf caddies jobless.
Late last year Amazon and Google aerial drones successfully delivered 10-kg parcels on home lawns 1.5 km away at five kph. No crashes. Uber road-tested scores of driverless cars in Detroit and San Francisco. The only time that one of them ran a red light was because the test-passenger had shut off the sensor. Those unmanned transports too would render cabbies redundant. To think that unmanned aerial vehicles already made obsolete such high-tech pros like supersonic spy jet pilots and aerial videographers, not to forget less skilled roundup cowboys too. Underwater versions also replaced deep-sea divers in measuring sea temperatures, salinity, and tides.
Robots are there to lighten menial work so man can devote more time to thinking. Benefited by automation are geologists, oceanographers, and meteorologists for whom robots collect land-sea-air data for analysis. But who knows what inventors would think of next to do the work? First, ATMs replaced the bank tellers, timed sprinklers the gardeners, and RFIDs (radio-frequency identification) the parking lot and tollgate attendants. Now the smartphone not only can snap photos, read aloud, take dictation, measure lengths and temperatures, set alarms, unlock doors, log meetings, store data, keep appointments, magnify objects, show movies, play music, and, oh, make phone calls – practically taking over home, office, and leisure staff work.
It’s automation, not globalization, that’s wiping out jobs worldwide. US President Donald Trump is barking up the wrong tree in blaming factory relocations to overseas for the layoffs of American blue-collar workers. In fact BPO (business process outsourcing) firms too have been hit by automation. Up to five years ago Filipino medical and legal transcribers were in hot demand by North American and Australian medical and law firms. But then came AI transcription apps that took over the trade.
New automation “threats” to the Philippines are the unmanned ships recently rolled out by Norway. Totally crewless, such vessels will drive to the poorhouse 420,000 Filipino seafarers who send home $6 billion (P30 billion) annually. Next to go would be the maritime schools, recruitment agencies, and medical insurers.
One wonders how peons would fare when the robots “invade” the land. Philippine labor and education officials are not ready for that eventuality. The only automation the country is implementing today is “contact-less ticket issuance” for traffic violators. And that’s bound to flop when traffic constables, accustomed to taking bribes, surreptitiously mess up the CCTVs. No different from how computerization failed at the Customs and vote automation at the Comelec. There would be worse unemployment and misery, leading to drug addiction. The only saving grace, since necessity is the mother of invention, is if a robot can be designed to conduct the O-Plan Tokhang.