Governments should focus on protecting people, and not jobs, as artificial intelligence and robotics disrupt industries, said Danny Quah, Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

“Be very afraid of how Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics, chatbots will take over all our jobs,” he said at the Innovation Labs World summit hosted by GovInsider. But “the appropriate public policy is to protect the worker, not the job”, he added.

Governments should create policies that upskill and allow citizens to make use of these new technologies and adapt to new roles. “If we look at this in the right way, we are able to control that technology in a way that takes care of workers, destroys jobs, but makes us all have a better life at the end of it,” he said. “Don’t try to hold back progress, the gig economy, autonomous vehicles.”

For instance, governments can teach workers to use AI and robotics to automate laborious work. This leaves more time for people to take on more challenging tasks, leading to high productivity rates, said Quah. “Let’s be open to the possibility that high productivity means that we are separating jobs, we are taking care of our workers.“ The Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy has launched an AI chatbot that answers simple questions from students, alumni and visitors, allowing university officials time to focus on solving more complex queries.

Countries are now launching their own upskilling programmes to teach citizens new tech skills. For one, the Singapore government runs specialised training programmes to train mid-career professionals in ICT skills like coding. Meanwhile, Malaysia integrates computational thinking into the national curriculum, so students can learn tech skills right from their very first school year.

Problems without passports

Another big challenge for governments is climate change, he added as, like job disruption, it cuts across international boundaries. They are “problems that don’t carry passports”, he said.

Solving climate change will require a “big push” from governments, as individual efforts to cut waste and energy use will not amount to much, he noted. “One person by themselves can be asked to not use so many plastic bags, to be conservative in the way they drive around. But it takes everybody,” Quah pointed out.

However, inequalities between developed and developing nations make it difficult to implement global agreements, such as the Paris climate agreement. “Developed nations have already spent the last 150 years imposing a large carbon footprint through the Industrial Revolution,” Quah said.

Globally standardised limits on carbon emissions can jeopardise the growth of developing countries and subsequently, their standard of living. “Emerging nations cannot advance themselves without similarly engaging in a carbon footprint. So it’s a huge problem in inequality,” he said.

Quah’s advice for developing nations is to focus on tackling the challenges that individuals wouldn’t be able to on their own. “You need to build infrastructure, [like] hospitals, schools, that individuals by themselves couldn’t take care of on their own,” he shared.

Professor Danny Quah spoke in the Skills and Education focus group held in partnership with Prudential Singapore at Innovation Labs World in Singapore on 25 September.

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