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Will technology or humanity be the great leveller?

The Edge Singapore
The Edge Singapore • 4 min read
Will technology or humanity be the great leveller?
SINGAPORE (Oct 15): On the face of it, people with the right technology skills seem to have it made in our brave new world of automation and artificial intelligence.
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SINGAPORE (Oct 15): On the face of it, people with the right technology skills seem to have it made in our brave new world of automation and artificial intelligence.

There is even some empirical evidence of this. According to a report published last month by the ASEAN+3 ­Macroeconomic Research Office (AMRO), highly skilled workers experienced the fastest-growing wage gains since 2007, while wages of low- and medium-skilled workers barely budged. The report was based on a study that examines the impact of technology on monthly wages and productivity gains in Singapore.

The survey also showed that the number of highly skilled workers resident in Singapore has increased significantly over the last three decades, while the number of low- and medium-skilled workers remained stagnant. Essentially, there are more and more highly skilled, highly paid workers in Singapore, whereas the number of lower-skilled, lower-paid workers remain more or less the same.

This paints a picture of Singapore being well on its way to becoming a more productive and wealthier nation. Advocates of technological advancements argue that automation will take away the tedium of jobs, thus freeing up people to pursue more fulfilling work. Organisations will benefit from lower costs and incidence of errors, as routine tasks are taken over by self-correcting, super-efficient machines, and from even higher revenues, as employees move into business development roles.

So, why are people in Singapore nervous about being disrupted out of traditional employment, and becoming concerned about a supposedly widening inequality? It might be because technology is really potentially bad news for workers across the whole skills spectrum — from cleaners to cardiologists.

As one economics professor tells our reporters, technology simply enables higher levels of productivity. People who are able to harness technology to improve their productivity are likely to become relatively wealthy. But that group of people might shrink over time, even as they become ever wealthier. Meanwhile, an ever larger group of workers who are not as technology-savvy could see their earning power fall.

Singapore has staved off this dystopian nightmare with numerous targeted assistance schemes, including outright wage top-ups. So, will our policymakers become increasingly influential in setting our household incomes and standards of living? Is there no role for the market in our future economy?

Some thinkers see a different kind of market economy emerging, one where we are rewarded for abilities that machines cannot mimic, such as creativity, imagination, nuance, adaptability and the ability to think ahead. Our incomes today are partly determined by the level of investment that had gone into developing a particular competence, as well as the level of skill. Doctors and lawyers, for instance, tend to be highly paid because educating them is expensive and takes a long time. Incomes are also determined by how much profit we happen to be able to generate for our employers. Hard work and guile, for instance, might enable salesmen to retire after just a few years on the job.

Yet, there are also jobs where hard measures of productivity are not the key determinant of job success or income. A plumber or hairdresser, for instance, can only deal with so many clients on any given workday. And, the economics of supply and demand do not always apply when it comes to personal services. In an ageing society, roles such as nurses, caregivers and counsellors will become increasingly indispensable too.

Ben Hammersley, a British personality who has reinvented himself as a futurist, tells our reporters that it could be only a matter of time before advancing technology disrupts traditional employment and creates a new wage order. In his view, jobs such as school teachers, nurses and hairdressers are going to be in demand because of their social value. And, he believes such social value will be priced into wages.

Can you imagine a world where the market rewards an empathetic nurse with a higher level of income than an uncaring lawyer?

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