Wonki Min, Leading Professor, Department of Technology & Society, SUNY (The State University of New York) Korea, and Chair of the OECD Committee on Digital Economy Policy
In October 2016, “Westworld” topped the charts as the most-watched premiere season of an HBO original series ever. In the series, a science fiction thriller written and directed by novelist Michael Crichton based on a 1973 film of the same name, Anthony Hopkins takes on the role of Dr Ford, who creates a futuristic western-themed amusement park populated by android hosts to cater human guests, with Evan Rachel Wood playing the role of Dolores, the oldest android host working in the park. Further to the great script and the impressive casting, the success of the series is also undoubtedly linked to its timing. Just one year ago, Lee Sedol, 18-time world Go-board game champion, was beaten by DeepMind’s AlphaGo, which was a monumental breakthrough of Artificial Intelligence (AI).
Even before the AlphaGo’s victory over Lee Sedol, there was growing interest in the potential and risks of humanoid robots and of AI, led by the likes of Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk. While the debate remains open on whether, or when, it might be possible to develop the artificial intelligence of Westworld-type humanoid robots, the use of industrial robots (essentially motor functions) and the appearance of autonomous machines with cognitive-type functions have been growing rapidly and raise concerns about job displacements by automation in the manufacturing sectors, including for vehicles.
As countries and international communities grapple with this question and the consequences of the rapid diffusion of AI and industrial robots, the 2017 OECD Digital Economy Outlook takes a timely look at the potential benefits and opportunities offered by AI as it begins to take hold and slowly penetrate, if not disrupt and transform, our economies and societies.
Productivity gains could be achieved in areas ranging from factories to offices and service centres as a result of both the automation of activities previously carried out by people and machine autonomy whereby systems are able to operate and adapt to changing circumstances with no or little human control. But as AI and robotics replace or augment components of human labour in both skilled and unskilled jobs, policies will be required to facilitate professional transitions and to help workers of various backgrounds, ages and levels develop the skills needed to take full advantage of the digital transformation.
Skills are not the only challenge for policy makers to address, as this new report shows: we need to provide access and connectivity, measures to promote innovation, and policies to enhance digital security and trust. Indeed new questions of liability, responsibility, security and safety also come up, notably with respect to autonomous machines. AI-powered decisions that impact people raise questions of transparency and oversight, among other things to prevent algorithmic biases, discrimination and privacy abuses. There is some urgency to act on these policy fronts, since the data show this new revolution to be well under way.
Roughly 750 000 industrial robots were estimated operational in OECD countries in 2014, constituting more than 80% of world stocks. Among OECD countries, Japan, the US, Korea and Germany are the most “robotised” countries in the OECD and together account for almost 70% of the total number of operational robots. In terms of the adoption of industrial robots by sector, the use of industrial robots is the most highly concentrated in transport equipment with almost 45% of the total stock of robots, followed by electronic, electrical and optical equipment, with almost 30%. Rubber and plastics have lower concentration at less than 10% and metal products (5%).
As for the future, expect to see more and more industrial robots replacing human workers in manufacturing facilities along with collaborative robots like “Baxter” that co-work with human workforce and service robots like “Relay”, a robot waiter that delivers food and snacks to guest at Shinagawa Prince Hotel in Tokyo. With AI, expert and high-wage occupations will also be impacted.
In the meantime, the use of AI and industrial robots will no doubt bring new opportunities to raise incomes, create new types of jobs and businesses and improve economic and social well-being. But there will be costs and bumps along the way. It is up to policy makers to play their part by helping make the digital transformation beneficial for all.
OECD (2017), The Next Production Revolution: Implications for Governments and Business, OECD Publishing, Paris.