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[MANILA] Jobs could be lost to artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, but Asia is well-positioned to benefit from automation, says a report on the impact of technology on livelihoods.

Published by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the report says the negative impact will be limited because automation usually affects only some aspects of a job, and its adoption is limited to places where doing so is technically and economically feasible.

“There will be some dislocation for workers, but it's not at a scale where you see a majority of people losing their jobs to machines,” Rana Hasan, director of the economic research and regional cooperation department at ADB, tells SciDev.Net. “Governments in the Asian region will need to take some policy actions but, overall, it’s a positive story.”

“Robots or automation become a nice way to keep workers working.”

Rana Hasan

Rising demand for jobs — which is expected to result from higher productivity through automation — can offset job displacement and also contribute to the creation of new professions, according to the report. The ADB’s analysis, which looks at 12 economies in developing Asia during 2005‒2015, strongly supports the idea that this rise in domestic demand more than compensates for job losses associated with technological advances.

Anthony Galibert, a research fellow in the research lab Carbon Bee, based in France, says that developing countries will nevertheless face some challenges in harnessing AI and other advanced technologies. In the meantime, he points out, farms in Europe and the United States already apply AI for various uses, such as automatic detection of weeds and diseases, and to assess the quality and maturity of crops.

“To use AI in agriculture, we need data about farming activities from several seasons,” Galibert explains. “I am afraid that farmers in developing countries rarely record that kind of data. It means we have to start from the very beginning.” 

The ADB report acknowledges that robotics and AI also pose challenges for workers, especially those engaged in repetitive, routine tasks and who do not have the education or training to move easily to other occupations. It says this could exacerbate income inequality in the Asia-Pacific region.

Jobs that are intensive in cognitive tasks, social interactions, and the use of ICT— all of which tend to be filled by better educated and better-paid workers — expanded 2.6 percentage points faster than total employment annually over the last 10 years, according to the report. And on average, real wages for these jobs increased faster than for routine or manual jobs.

But South-East Asia is diverse, and each country must make its own strategies, according to the ADB. For instance, in Vietnam, roughly a quarter of manufacturing jobs depend on “some amount of saturation of demand” in developed countries for items like clothes and shoes, notes Hasan. “So, Vietnam will have to think about how [to ensure] its domestic demand remains high.”

Meanwhile, countries like Thailand have already been thinking a lot about “industry 4.0” — which refers to automation and data exchange in manufacturing — because its ageing population, relative to that of its neighbouring countries, makes automation attractive, says Hasan. “Robots or automation become a nice way to keep workers working.” Policymakers must ensure the benefits of new technologies are shared widely, according to Damian Grimshaw, director of the International Labour Organisation’s research department. Grimshaw tells SciDev.Net that governments need to focus on implementing and enhancing support mechanisms for those losing their jobs due to automation. “This requires expansion of social protection and labour market policies that promote sectoral and occupational mobility,” he notes.

ADB’s Hasan adds that skill systems need to be put in place to help young people to transition from being students to workers. He says the current framework, where children go from primary school to secondary and then university or vocational school, needs to be replaced by flexible universities or vocational schools where students in their late 30s or 40s can retrain in digital technology or the Internet.

With reports from Dyna Rochmyaningsih

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.