x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 February 2018

The cities of the future might be dominated by robots – but the blueprint must be laid down by humans today

How to build a robust education system, flexible labour market and shrink the public sector are the problems of today and tomorrow, writes Faisal Al Yafai

Humanoid robots being mass-produced in Turkey / Reuters
Humanoid robots being mass-produced in Turkey / Reuters

Fifty per cent is a big number. As part of the World Government Summit, the management consultancy McKinsey and Company estimated that nearly half of the existing jobs in the Middle East – nearly 21 million full-time employees – could be automated within 12 years.

The McKinsey report focused on six countries, five GCC countries and Egypt but if accurate, the level of disruption could be enormous and would be replicated, to different degrees, across the Arab world. That level of change will present difficult policy challenges. And yet, while some of the challenges will be new, most will not be. In fact, many of the hardest questions about the coming age of automation are actually being tackled right now.

The single biggest fear of widespread automation is the loss of jobs. Automation will decimate the need for workers in some areas: retail staff, warehouse workers, drivers, administrators of all kinds; all of these will see their jobs disappear, and swiftly. Already there are stores worldwide that barely use staff to interact with customers. That will soon become more common. Administration tasks will be done more swiftly and cheaply by computers. Even highly trained administrators, such as those working in law and finance, will find their jobs at risk.

These job losses will affect different Middle Eastern countries differently. In Gulf states, many frontline jobs like the service industry and retail will most likely continue to be staffed by overseas workers. In Egypt, however, where a third of employees work for the state, the bureaucracy is much bigger and consequently any technological advance that automates routine clerical tasks is likely to put the jobs of millions at risk.

That, however, is only half the story. The other half is that there will a compensatory increase in new jobs.

Technology will allow jobs to be created that couldn't be done before and businesses will benefit from what economists call more efficient allocation of capital – meaning companies, freed of the need to spend money on jobs like shelf-stacking and admin tasks, will use that money to create new products and new services, which will need workers.

Preparing for automation is not entirely, nor even primarily, about managing technology. It's really about managing people. Many of the most pressing problems in the age of automation will be very familiar, human problems; problems that Middle Eastern governments of today are already grappling with.

Take, for example, a question that is currently pressing across the Gulf states, which rely heavily on overseas workers. GCC countries want to push nationalisation – Emiratisation in the UAE, Saudisation next door – and encourage nationals to take up more roles in both the public and private sectors. That presents certain difficulties, such as training enough citizens to do very highly skilled work, which requires careful calibration of what skills might be needed tomorrow.

Automation does not solve those policy problems, it merely switches the particularities.

There is already a shortage of GCC nationals in teaching and nursing. When automation changes nursing and healthcare beyond recognition – when artificial intelligence can interpret X-rays and automated displays carry complete medical histories and robots lead patients through the hospital wards – it will only get more difficult.

When transportation means a fleet of driverless trucks and taxis crisscrossing the roads of the Gulf, there will still need to be someone in a control room, someone in a call centre offering help, someone overseeing the repairs in a garage. There will be fewer jobs but there will still be jobs that need to be done by humans.

So the questions that arise today will still arise tomorrow.

For example, how do you ensure a balance of nationals and overseas workers within companies? And what about education? How do you ensure citizens are given the right educational tools for the jobs of the future – jobs that, after all, haven't even been invented yet? How do you ensure that they are equipped not merely to do but to invent those jobs? The UAE has already begun to weigh up this possibility by recruiting a batch of 500 Emirati men and women to start training in artificial intelligence, with the idea of equipping them with the skills to start shaping the country's future in an industry that is expected to affect every company and individual on the planet.

Now take one of the most difficult and complex questions across the Middle East, not merely in the GCC: the role and reach of the state. In many regional countries, the government is the “employer of last resort”; in all of them, especially in the GCC, surveys show that state employment is preferred by citizens. What will be the role of the state if – as widely predicted – employment plummets with automation?

Will the government shoulder the expense of paying to retrain citizens whose jobs have been replaced by robots? Will a universal basic income – now being widely discussed in relation to the next industrial revolution – become a reality?

All of these are real, live questions today: how to build a responsive, robust education system, create a flexible labour market, ensure jobs at all levels of skills being done by nationals and shrink the public sector. In the capitals of the Arab world today, these are being debated.

Seen in that way, it becomes clear that preparing for the age of automation is not something that needs to be done in the future; it can be done right now.

The cities of the future might well be dominated by robots – but the blueprint for their policy will be laid down by the human of today.