Artificial Intelligence

These 3 countries are more prepared for automation than anyone else, here's why

A study found that every country is grappling with how to respond to AI and automation, writing that "societies are...in for a long period of trial and error."

Building a slide deck, pitch, or presentation? Here are the big takeaways:
  • South Korea, Singapore, and Germany are rated highly for their response to the coming wave of AI-backed automation. — ABB/The Economist Intelligence Unit, 2018
  • Almost every country has a long way to go in addressing automation challenges such as education policy and labor regulations. — ABB/The Economist Intelligence Unit, 2018

Singapore, South Korea, and Germany topped a recent survey of how countries across the world are dealing with rapidly advancing artificial intelligence (AI) technology primed to automate millions of jobs in the coming years.

Commissioned by ABB, The Economist Intelligence Unit created their Automation Readiness Index using data and interviews with industry stakeholders, economists, government officials, and NGOs. The index ranks countries by how prepared they are for what they call "intelligent automation."

There have long been questions about the future of automation and the adoption of AI-backed robotics that can do more than just replicate physical human tasks. Businesses are showing little hesitation in exploring AI, but governments continue to struggle in preparing populations for the coming changes to the workforce. The study highlights the need for governments to not only help business effectively take advantage of new AI technology, but also to push policy initiatives that can offset job losses and update skills.

SEE: Machine automation policy guidelines (Tech Pro Research)

"To avoid a vacuum, countries will need to put policies and plans in place to help individuals (and to some extent businesses) take maximum advantage of the opportunities that these technologies offer," the index authors wrote. "Policies will also be needed to mitigate the negative impacts resulting from the displacement of some categories of workers from their familiar roles. In both cases it is a matter of policies and strategies that help workforces make the transition to a more automated economy."

Their findings indicate that most, if not all, countries are ill-prepared to address the new wave of automation and are only beginning to help companies and organizations adopt these AI technologies responsibly.

But Germany, South Korea, and Singapore were the standouts, doubling down in recent years on "individual initiatives in areas such as curriculum reform, lifelong learning, occupational training, and workplace flexibility," the index said. Japan and South Korea are spending millions on both public and private research into robotics, and the US, Singapore, and Germany are following suit.

The study noted that middle-income countries, particularly ones in Asia like Malaysia and Singapore, will suffer the most due to their heavy reliance on manufacturing jobs that are already being automated.

Some economists and UN officials told the survey authors that middle- and lower-income countries may be better off than larger, wealthier nations. Countries in Eastern Europe and Africa have had success spreading technology to small businesses and local artisans, building knowledge of AI automation from the ground up.

"Because they are not locked into pre-existing technologies to the same extent as in the developed world, developing economies would not be at a large disadvantage should such development models take hold," Lorenzo Fioramonti, a professor of political economy at the University of Pretoria, said in the index.

Although the survey said most countries were still working through ineffective policies, Japan, Germany, and South Korea got high marks for their innovation environments, education policies, and labor market policies. South Korea spent more than 4% of its GDP on research and development programs for AI, more than any other country on earth. China, India, and Malaysia also scored high marks for fostering innovation along with Estonia, which played important roles in the creation of Skype and Transferwise.

When it came to education, the index said almost every country was failing its population by not making some shift toward more coding and technology-related courses.

"Very few countries are taking the bull by the horns when it comes to adapting education systems for the age of automation. Those that are have long had a clear focus on human capital development," Saadia Zahidi, head of education, gender, and employment initiatives at the World Economic Forum, said in the index. "These are countries in northern Europe and the Nordic region, as well as Singapore, which are probably running some of the most useful experiments for the future world of work."

Among European nations, France, Estonia, and the UK had the highest percentages of people over the age of 25 involved in education and training.

China and Canada also had strong initiatives in place to update curriculums at grade-school levels. Experts in the study cautioned some countries to wait before trying to add coding or tech to schooling, as progress was still needed in critical, basic areas such as reading and comprehension.

The report ended with a survey of labor policies around the world and how this was affecting the adoption of AI. Ironically, some companies complained that they wanted to automate more of their processes with AI-backed technology but could not find enough engineers to service these types of machines. The gulf in knowledge was so wide that many companies in Singapore and Taiwan are forced to hire people and educate them through their own programs.

In 2016, China had the most industrial robots in use worldwide at 87,000 units, 40,000 more than the next closest country. But they still need more workers with technical know-how to run the machines, prompting the Chinese government to look at vocational programs offered in countries like Germany and Singapore, which have had limited success.

The survey did warn that due to the high number of unknowns, it was hard to truly know how automation would affect societal working roles and habits.

"More study, multi-stakeholder dialogue and international knowledge sharing appear, then, to be the order of the day for governments," index authors wrote. "Policy should not wait for too long, however, because the business world is moving ahead with automation at speed."

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Image: iStockphoto/AlexLMX

About Jonathan Greig

Jonathan Greig is a freelance journalist based in New York City. He recently returned to the United States after reporting from South Africa, Jordan, and Cambodia since 2013.

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