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Rise of the machines needs to be matched with rise in skills

Above: Honeymill founder Sophia Lim uses a robot to mix drinks.

Above: Aryani Suhardi started as a Prudential customer service executive but now trains chatbots and more.


SCIENCE fiction has given us plenty of reasons to believe that a showdown between robots and humans will end badly - for us.

The machines already seem to be winning when it comes to jobs, edging out human workers in almost every sector. Machines are on track to replace doctors, lawyers and journalists just as they have already replaced cashiers and could soon replace drivers.

What does this inexorable march towards a world dominated by machines and artificial intelligence mean for workers?

Technological change is always disruptive, but this new wave of automation is expected to cause even more upheaval than usual.

A report released in March by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) warned that countries are failing to prepare workers for an automation revolution that could leave 66 million people at risk of being replaced by machines in the coming years.

The OECD said 14 per cent of jobs in developed countries were highly automatable, while a further 32 per cent of jobs were likely to experience significant changes to the way they were carried out.

In the report's sample of 32 countries, the median job is estimated to have 48 per cent probability of being automated. For Singapore, this probability was 45 per cent.

In a separate study, management consulting firm McKinsey concluded that more than a fifth of the global labour force - 800 million workers - might lose their jobs because of automation.

The report, which looked at 46 countries and more than 800 job types, said robots would "increase productivity and improve our lives", but also warned that using them would "substitute some work activities humans currently perform".

The rise of automation and robots has worked in some companies' favour, especially in manpower-scarce Singapore.

Honey distributor Honey House, for instance, has opened a concept store called Honeymill which features a robot that can mix drinks.

The robot - which cost S$200,000 and took nine months to custom-build - can slice fruits and dispense honey, toppings and water in perfect proportions. It is also programmed to differentiate between 20 different varieties of honey.

"If we do not innovate, it will not be possible for us to beat the retail crunch. Our business has to evolve to keep up with times," says Honeymill founder Sophia Lim, 59.

"The robot is able to stir every drink perfectly - human hands are not as consistent. The robot also does not have mood swings and does not go on MC.

"It's a good investment because it means I don't have to hire as many people."

The outlet has just one staff member, who keys customers' orders into the system and leaves the robot to prepare their drinks.

"The staff can then add more value by providing services to customers, like educating them about the many different types of honey."

Business at the outlet - which opened at the end of 2017 - has been "stable", says Ms Lim, who intends to open five stores in Singapore.

As the robot revolution transforms the world of work, most experts agree that the best way workers can respond is to adapt.

In fact, while machines will displace jobs, their rise will likely also result in new oppportunities for workers.

"We call this a skills revolution, not a jobs revolution - it's about new skills and the redefinition of skills, not a replacement of jobs," says ManpowerGroup executive vice-president for global strategy and talent Mara Swan.

Singapore is in a good position to take advantage of these shifts given its highly educated population and low unemployment rate, she notes.

"Skills are what matter right now - individuals must continue to learn and companies have to continue to focus on training."

National Trades Union Congress assistant secretary-general Patrick Tay says both workers and employers have to gear up for the rise of robots.

"Whatever that can be mechanised, robotised and digitalised will be mechanised, robotised, and digitalised," he notes.

The biggest challenge is cultivating the right mindset, Mr Tay says.

"For employers, this means leading, encouraging and setting the right tone to get their workers equipped with the in-demand skills and to stay future-ready and future-proofed as the speed of change and disruption is fast and furious.

"For workers, it means staying positive and pro-active to embrace training and skills upgrading to stay ready, relevant and resilient."

Increasingly, this means working alongside robots, as Aryani Suhardi has discovered.

Ms Aryani, 37, started out as a customer service executive when she joined Prudential Singapore in 2006, but has since become a "chatbot trainer".

Her job used to mainly involve responding to queries from Prudential's 4,500-strong team of financial consultants. In 2017, the company started developing a chatbot that could provide financial consultants with information at their fingertips, instead of relying solely on contact centre staff.

"The introduction of a chat-bot presented me with a unique opportunity to be its in-house trainer. My in-depth knowledge of the business meant I could 'train' the chatbot with the information it needed," says Ms Aryani.

To pick up the necessary technical skills, she went on an intensive half-year training programme which involved IBM Watson and data scientists from NCS.

Prudential Singapore's chief human resource officer Sheela Parakkal says the company has been investing heavily in technology and training.

Last year, Prudential Singapore invested more than 25,000 hours in training employees in leadership, design thinking, innovation, and digital skills. These training hours were complemented by S$70 million invested in technology.

"In the last year, we launched several innovative solutions such as an industry-first e-claims solution and an AI-powered askPRU chatbot that has helped reduce call volumes in our call centre by 30 per cent. The success of these solutions can certainly be traced back to the investments we made in the people who drove them," says Ms Parakkal.

Ms Aryani adds: "My role as a chatbot trainer grows every day. From training our very first chatbot, I am now training colleagues to train the bot, and to use the bot to help them in their work.

"Our team as a whole has moved on to performing higher-value tasks thanks to a bot that is now fielding queries on our behalf.

"For me, I have advanced to more complex bot training modules and working alongside my IT colleagues to enhance the overall user experience of the bot."

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