Opinion: How Hong Kong will fare in an AI-powered future

Countries throughout the world are in the midst of a major economic transition, away from reliance on human labor and toward robotics and artificial intelligence. A recent survey by accounting firm Pricewaterhouse Coopers predicted that 38 percent of US jobs have may be lost to automation by the early 2030s. Japan, which has been devoted to robotics for some time, is projected to lose just over half that amount of jobs.

How does the prospect of an automated future bode for Hong Kong? Since the city already lost most of its low-skilled manufacturing jobs to Mainland China long ago, most of the current jobs that could be replaced by artificial intelligence are in the services sector. For being one of the four Asian Tigers, Hong Kong’s services rely on surprisingly dated technology. In this respect, disparities between Hong Kong and the developing economy of neighboring Mainland China are poignant. For instance, online shopping platforms such as Taobao are hugely popular across the border in China’s tech hub Shenzhen, while people in Hong Kong still rely mainly on traditional brick and mortar establishments for purchasing consumer goods. Before comparisons are taken too far, however, it is important to note that Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated areas in the world, with a highly efficient public transport system that puts food and retail stores within convenient reach of the consumer. Nevertheless, it seems only a matter of time before automated checkout lanes become more prevalent in Hong Kong’s shops.

Turning to Hong Kong’s “pillar” industries, parts of its financial services sector have been resistant to shifts toward automation. Geography may have played a role in preserving some of these jobs. In 2015, three quarters of foreign currency trading by the industry’s largest and most active corporate players was done electronically, according to a report by consulting firm Greenwich Associates. Most currency trading takes place in Western markets like London and New York, which correspondingly have higher levels of automation. The persistence of human traders in Asian hubs like Hong Kong, therefore, can partly be attributed to scalability; Asian brokerage companies have less efficiency to gain by outsourcing their brokering jobs to computers than the firms in London or New York. Still, the overall trend in currency trading points toward complete automation.

So what kind of jobs in Hong Kong are more likely to stay? In the first “Leading Women in Futurism” panel last week at Bloomberg’s Hong Kong office, Maria Chan, Global Data Manager at Bloomberg LP, said that her company is pushing to have more and more news stories written by artificial intelligence. To help accomplish this, her team is developing software that will eventually be able to identify important numbers in financial documents without the need for human assistance. However, she pointed out that creating the software requires careful thought on the part of designers and engineers, who still decide the purposes and functions of these tools. In addition, human analysts, Chan argued, have the intellectual capacity to identify subtle yet important correlations between data sets. For example, her team was able to find that washing machine production is the best indicator of home sales growth in China. Judging from this case, it could be argued that automation frees up creative and talented minds to pursue more worthwhile and intellectually satisfying work than scouring financial documents for data and then double-checking numbers. The only problem is making sure that human workers have the technical know how and critical thinking ability to stay on top of the game.

As the world enters a period of ever-increasing reliance on automation and artificial intelligence, some people may be left behind, particularly those without training in emerging technologies and higher order thinking skills (See Bloom’s Taxonomy). Hong Kong’s economic prospects are not as bright as they were decades ago. The city is slowly losing its young people, and many of its elderly citizens, who helped build the city’s prosperity, supplement their meager pensions by sorting and selling rubbish on the streets. The key for Hong Kong and other developed economies to thrive in the future is to make sure their populations have the training and opportunities necessary to stay relevant while working alongside their computerized counterparts.

[Last edited: June 10, 2017]