Will You Be Replaced by AI & Automation?

By Howie Chang

November 2023 COVER STORY
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AS WE FIND ourselves in the thick of IR 4.0, one question looms large: “Will automation replace human jobs?” This article discusses the most automatable sectors, new emerging jobs in the digital age and how we can stay relevant in an ever-changing job market.

AI and Its History

In order to grasp the role of artificial intelligence—commonly known as AI—one must first understand it beyond just a catch-phrase tossed around in conversations. AI is an arm of computer science that enables machines to think, learn and act like humans. And because it is able to process, analyse and learn with large data sets at an incredible rate, it does these with a capacity that is way beyond human reach.

AI as a concept itself is not fresh. It dates back centuries to when machines were employed during the First Industrial Revolution to perform functions once done manually, and with enhanced effectiveness and speed. Today’s AI simply adds to this idea of using technology to expand human capabilities.

AI is now used in almost every aspect of our lives. Have you ever wondered how Netflix consistently anticipates your preferences? That is AI at work. The spam filter in your mail box? That is also AI. Algorithms constitute the very heart of AI, whether it is shaping your Instagram Explore page or underpinning critical functions like fraud detection and disease prediction.

Throughout the history of mankind, technology has been harnessed to streamline processes, enhance decision-making and enrich our lives. Therefore, when people worry about AI “taking jobs”, it is important to note that technology has always been used to replace human labour, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. The introduction of ATMs, for example, did not make bank tellers obsolete. Rather, ATM machines permitted banks to increase their branch network and employ tellers in more fulfilling and less menial roles.

Automation In Manufacturing

The manufacturing sector has always relied on automation, but with AI, its depth and pace have undergone significant transformation. While in the past, robots could only do simple tasks like moving things on conveyor belts, they can now perform delicate procedures that demand a level of accuracy and consistency challenging for human workers, like welding and painting.

The harsh reality is that as robots make manufacturing processes far more efficient, humans do face the risk of being replaced—especially in roles that require repetitive manual labour. McKinsey Global Institute estimates that almost 50% of the work in Malaysia can be automated. This should signal the urgent need for the labour force to upskill themselves to remain relevant in the workforce.

A New Frontier In The Service Sector

The service sector is also fast adopting AI, especially in customer service. Sophisticated chatbots and automated Customer Management Systems are employed to either augment or replace what was once considered a strictly “human” role.

I experienced this myself recently in George Town. As I sat down and browsed through the menu of a restaurant on a tablet, I noticed something out of the ordinary: there were no bustling waiters. Instead, cobots—collaborative robots working alongside people—whizzed between tables as big, smiley emoticons flashed across their screens.

My curiosity piqued, I observed how this restaurant had integrated technology into its service model. After placing my order through the tablet, a cobot arrived just minutes later. It navigated the dining area with surprising agility, avoiding obstacles and diners with ease while balancing the dishes I had ordered on its tray.

It was not only a novel dining experience, but also a vivid example of how automation and AI are penetrating even the most traditional sectors, such as food servicing. While cobots cannot yet replace the warmth of actual human hospitality, they supplement the dining experience with a layer of efficiency by removing the possibility of incorrect orders and by speeding up the delivery of my food.

As the incorporation of technology into the food industry continues to scale, it will necessitate changes in the desired skillset of employees to one of managing and maintaining these automated systems. That being said, humans are still needed to deal with complicated customer needs. Thus, human involvement in customer service is still, as of now, irreplaceable.

The Quiet Transformation of Administrative Roles

These days, software can handle a wide range of tasks within data entry and administrative roles that used to be done manually, from entering data to actually interpreting it.

Take Optical Character Recognition (OCR) as an example. It scans various types of documents and turns them into formats that you can edit and search. Once OCR does its magic, machine learning algorithms step in to sort and analyse the data, and even make future predictions based on it.

Here is the thing: While traditional data entry jobs might be on the way out, new roles are cropping up that require a different skillset, focusing on interpreting and making decisions based on analytics.

The Silver Lining-Emerging Job Opportunities

No doubt automation and AI technologies are phasing out many repetitive and low-skilled roles, but there are two sides to the coin—automation has also provided the impetus to create new jobs which were inconceivable barely a decade ago, and which require skillsets that favour creativity, sophisticated problem-solving as well as emotional intelligence.

Software Engineers

Software engineers, likened as the architects and builders of the digital world, create applications that power the digital revolution. Some of the common languages and tech stacks used include Kotlin, Python, JavaScript with their modern frameworks, and libraries like MERN (MongoDB, Express.js, React, Node.js) stack and PHP. Frontend and backend development as well as databases are the areas of understanding required for engineers, in addition to cloud computing services. Considering the dynamism in this field, one must rely on lifelong learning and versatility to remain relevant.

Data Scientists and Analysts

Data in today’s world is as valuable a commodity as oil; it fuels the digital economy. Companies are now collecting vast data ranging from consumer behaviours to market trends. This increase in the acquisition of data has translated to an increased need for data scientists and analysts who must comb through huge datasets to pinpoint useful intel and convert this into simple, strategic proposals that decision makers can understand. This role involves a good working knowledge of statistics, data visualisation and business strategy, as well as fluency in programming languages such as Python.

AI and Machine Learning Engineers

AI and machine learning engineers are needed to develop, improve and run these systems. A good background in computer science, programming and machine learning algorithms is useful for an engineer in this field. One also has to be strong in languages such as Python, Java or C++, and possess an advanced knowledge of machine learning libraries, along with frameworks like TensorFlow or PyTorch.

Cybersecurity Specialists

As our lives and economies become increasingly digitised, the need for cybersecurity experts to minimise cyber threats, including data breaches and ransomware attacks, becomes increasingly critical. These professionals specialise in information security, network protocols and sometimes ethical hacking, apart from being familiar with security frameworks and compliance regulations. Due to the sensitive nature of the work, high integrity and being up to date with the rapidly advancing threat landscape are prerequisites.

The Path To Relevance

“Upskilling” may sound trite and overused, but its importance is undeniable. Beyond just learning a new set of skills or mastering a new tool, it is also about a fundamental shift in mindset in recognising that the skills that got you to this point may not be the ones that will bring you into the future. In a world rapidly reshaped by technology, staying stagnant is no longer an option.

The challenge now lies in developing a workforce that is not only tech-savvy but truly tech-competent. In other words, we need to nurture individuals into creators of technology instead of just consumers. Beyond technological understanding, this entails a deep transformation from the passive adoption of new media to its active creation.

I see this transformation in a few stages: As consumers of technology, we are initiated as digital citizens. We all start off as mere users of a plethora of applications and tools.

As we explore deeper and become more adept, the desire to collaborate arises. This is when we become Collaborators. As we build relationships and collaborate with fellow digital citizens on online platforms, we begin to realise that synergy in the digital domain entails utilising optimisation tools not only for one’s individual use but to uplift group dynamism.

Nevertheless, collaboration is only the first step towards a much greater goal. Over time, we see gaps and issues that call for certain remedies. The Innovator within is thus awakened here. We no longer merely use technology as it is provided; instead, we start tweaking, optimising and maximising it to solve specific problems.

The transition into Creators becomes the apex of digital advancement. Creators are visionaries who forge the road into the digital future. Pioneers who go where no one has gone before in the digital landscape, they aspire to conceive and design its future. This becomes a tradition, with the present generation of creators laying the foundation for future digital citizens in their journey of inquiry, collaboration, innovation and creation.

In Malaysia, the tech industry is thriving, with both the government and private institutions offering a variety of upskilling programmes. These range from short courses in data analytics to intensive software development bootcamps. One can easily stay atop of trends by utilising these available resources.

Furthermore, being prepared for inevitable changes means understanding the broader landscape and how specific sectors are impacted. Apart from job security, it is also better positioning oneself for emerging opportunities. While the future is uncertain, one thing is clear: Automation is here to stay, and understanding its implications is the first step in turning challenges into opportunities.

So, whether you are in a stable role or are in danger of being replaced, now is the time to act. Invest in yourself. Pick up that new skill, enrol in a course or even consider a career change if your current path seems limiting. The most secure job is one you create for yourself through continuous learning and adaptation.

Howie Chang

is the trailblazing co-founder and CEO of Forward College, a game-changing tech and future skills college in Malaysia. With his knack for product management, user experience and digital transformation, he is reshaping the landscape of tech education for individuals and enterprises. His mission is to help all be a better version of themselves for a future he believes will be made by creators, not consumers.