AI will threaten S’pore professionals if not used thoughtfully: Study

This is contrary to expectations that mostly low- and middle-skilled roles would be devalued or lost, says the research by 20 social scientists.

Krist Boo

Krist Boo

The Straits Times


Professor Phillip Brown believes how the fourth industrial revolution led by AI is viewed will shape the actions taken. PHOTO: INSTITUTE FOR ADULT LEARNING/THE STRAITS TIMES

November 2, 2023

SINGAPORE – Highly paid professionals with no managerial duties may be most impacted as firms use artificial intelligence (AI) to drive down costs and raise productivity, a new global study suggests.

This is contrary to expectations that mostly low- and middle-skilled roles would be devalued or lost, says the research by 20 social scientists.

In Singapore, this phenomenon may be felt in jobs such as credit decision-makers, field engineers, curriculum designers and consultants, according to the study, which was presented at a conference on Wednesday.

As tasks get automated, standardised and redistributed through simplification and offshoring, professionals will find jobs falling in quality.

Middle-class aspirations here could come under strain as a result because professionals and degree holders form the fastest-growing category of workers earning middle wages, defined in the study as those earning 75 per cent to 150 per cent of median income.

Managers, in contrast, will gain greater clout.

Professor Phillip Brown, distinguished research professor at Cardiff University and director of the research programme, explained this with an example of the health service in the United Kingdom.

“The doctors or the academics have a lot of control and then, over time, managers come in to coordinate and organise moves onto (technological) platforms,” he said on the sidelines of the event.

“The managerial control is likely to become greater through those technologies and it will strip out aspects of knowledge work from the professionals and technicians.”

The findings were presented to 250 delegates at the Digital Futures of Work Global Conference 2023, which was organised by the Institute for Adult Learning (IAL), an autonomous institute of the Singapore University of Social Sciences. It was held at Voco Orchard Hotel.

Funded by SkillsFuture Singapore, the Digital Futures of Work Research Programme took place over four years from 2019 and covered more than 500 interviews and quantitative analyses of AI adoption patterns in places such as Silicon Valley, Singapore and London.

More than 80 senior executives from 60 companies in Singapore were interviewed, and data from the Singapore Skills and Learning Survey conducted between 2021 and 2022 was analysed for the study.

It need not be a surrender of “destiny” to technology; AI can still impact jobs positively if society intervenes in how companies use AI, said Prof Brown.

“We did seek out companies that were doing things differently,” he said. These firms recognise humans as a differentiator and recognise that if everybody has got the technology, their competitive edge will be their people.

These firms might, for example, let most of their workers experiment with AI tools, or tap AI tools to connect groups with different know-how to enhance collaboration.

Helsinki and Berlin, digital hubs like Singapore with a high concentration of tech activities, have prioritised using AI to enhance professional work and opportunities rather than substitute well-paid workers, the study said.

Ms Sahara Sadik, assistant director for research at the IAL and deputy director of the research programme, called for a more deliberate AI transition.

Firms can be more creative and agile by designing new job functions and use of AI together with workers, rather than dropping top-down policies onto their workforce.

“What we are putting forward is that there is a need for social response if we truly believe that technology is going to benefit everyone,” she said in a speech.

There is also a need for stronger implementation of AI for low-skilled workers, said Ms Chia Ying, a senior researcher at IAL and leader of the quantitative investigation.

“Lower-skilled workers are not being freed up from routine tasks to do more interesting and complex work unlike commonly assumed. This has implications on the learning they will be motivated to seek,” she said.

Panellists at the conference talked about their firms’ outlook and experiences with AI.

One of them, Mr Connor Clark-Lindh, vice-president for global digital operations at Norwegian chemicals company Yara, said jumping on the AI bandwagon is meaningless if firms are not thoughtful about their strategies.

Typical knowledge workers could gain from tools like ChatGPT, which let them deliver more personalised services at scale. But taking a top-down view on how workers will be impacted often misses the point.

“The reality is that a lot of corporates run learning and development programmes without actually having serious conversations internally about what the organisation wants to be in the future.

“And if you don’t have those conversations, it doesn’t matter what AI tools you use,” said Mr Clark-Lindh.

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