Technology is a double-edged sword for Asia

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As Asian governments invest in automation, many are concerned about a spillover effect on jobs and education.

It’s imperative for the region to protect workers, instruct societies about disruptive technologies and harness private sector funds in the process, experts said at a CNBC-hosted debate during the Asian Development Bank’s annual gathering in Manila on Friday.

Home to many developing countries that are skipping traditional stages of digital development to embrace advanced solutions such as big data, Asia is increasingly creating smart cities reliant on the Internet of Things.

But that could hit blue-collar workers, with situations such as truck drivers losing their jobs to driverless vehicles, Sri Lankan Minister of Finance and Mass Media Mangala Samaraweera warned.

As an emerging economy, “we need to explore more serious options to mitigate those challenges … How are we going to absorb thousands of people who may lose their jobs to automation?” he said. “The choice is whether we enter into what I call an Athenian age of innovation or enter another period of high unemployment and anarchy,” he continued.

The Asian Development Bank, an institution that provides funds and technical assistance to members for economic development, has a more optimistic view on the situation.

New technologies can generate new occupations, said Takehiko Nakao, the bank’s president: “If there is more AI usage, there will be more work created.”

Robotics and artificial intelligence are bound to displace certain jobs, but they will also “unleash countervailing forces that generate more jobs,” the ADB said in an April report. Task automation will restructure jobs in a way so that machines handle only the routine tasks, freeing up workers to focus on complex procedures that can result in improved productivity, it continued.

“The next technological change is going to come from a scientist, not a robot,” said Nandita Parshad, managing director for energy and natural resources at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development: “Right now, we need all the human brains behind technology.”

But governments can’t implement disruptive systems without providing proper training on best practices, Friday’s panelists said.

“It isn’t a matter of simply installing devices to educate people on technology,” said Minette Navarrete, president of Kickstart Ventures, the corporate venture capital subsidiary of Philippine telecommunications firm Globe Telecom.

Her company had donated computers to a public school, and, a year later, they were still in their boxes because the school lacked technicians, electrification and training for teachers on how to use the equipment, she recounted. Investment isn’t only required in hardware, but also in people, she said.

Sri Lanka, for example, is currently in the midst of providing free tablets to rural school children and installing internet connectivity in villages, said Samaraweera. “It’s easy to find money to provide free tablets but those who use it should be capable of using it for good, this is the challenge of our times,” he said.

On the topic of financing, panelists said it’s unrealistic to assume Asia’s public sector can foot the bill for digitalization.

Governments “have to make it interesting for the private sector to come in,” said Parshad: “Public and private need to work together to reach as much scale as possible.”

“The hope is to find socially responsible investors,” echoed Navarrete, who recommended private players take long-term time frames, such as 10 years, when considering the potential returns on investment as well as impact on society.

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