The Korea Herald


[Industry 4.0] How will Industry 4.0 impact jobs?

By Ock Hyun-ju

Published : Aug. 11, 2016 - 16:57

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It took a weeklong match in March this year between 18-time world Go champion Lee Se-dol and Alphago for it to hit South Koreans hard: Human beings could actually be replaced by artificial intelligence.

Alphago, the AI Go program developed by Google DeepMind, won four out of five games. The initial anticipation of Lee’s sweeping victory soon turned into self-assuring consolation that he at least managed one win.

“After the match, I was actually fearful of my own arrogant assumption that a man-made AI would never outperform a human,” said Kim Sung-jin, a 33-year-old researcher in material engineering. “When an AI accumulates sufficient data, its accuracy and speed could outshine many human scholars.”

In the age of the smart machine, the world is experiencing changes in the way humans live, work and interact with others driven by technological advances in areas such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the “Internet of Things,” 3-D printing, data storage and genetics. The changes are disruptive enough for Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, to coin the term the “4th Industrial Revolution,” or “Industry 4.0.” 
A spectator watches a robot demonstrating a surgical procedure during a Bio & Medical Korea exhibition in Seoul last year. (Yonhap) A spectator watches a robot demonstrating a surgical procedure during a Bio & Medical Korea exhibition in Seoul last year. (Yonhap)
While the rise of AI and robots has significantly helped human beings complete their tasks, it poses a worrying question: What impact will Industry 4.0 have on jobs?

According to a “The Future of Jobs” report published by the World Economic Forum early this year, as many as 7.1 million jobs could be lost in 15 major economies by 2020 through redundancy, automation or disintermediation, with the greatest losses expected in white-collar office and administrative roles.

The loss could be partially offset by the creation of 2.1 million new jobs, mainly in more specialized sectors such as computer, mathematics and engineering, the report said.

In the book “Rise of the Robots,” Martin Ford has pointed out that robots are likely to replace such white-collar workers as teachers, journalists, lawyers and others in the service sector as new technology makes their skills -- more technical than creative -- less valuable.

Local experts noted that cutting-edge technologies will substitute human labor, but remained cautious about predicting whether the country will gain or lose jobs overall.

“New technologies lead to job losses, but also creation of new jobs, though it remains to be seen whether the digital revolution will make up for the job destruction.” said Lee Byung-tae, who teaches Internet technology at KAIST Business School.

“But the challenge human beings face today is that we are unable to cope with fast-evolving technologies, fast-disappearing and appearing jobs.”

“For now, Korea should be more worried about overseas competitors as it is losing jobs to developing countries more than to new technologies as companies seek to relocate their factories to lower production costs.”

Park Myoung-soo, a researcher at Korea Institute of Science and Technology, noted that automation complements labor.

“Workers will rather move to creative sectors than be excluded from labor,” he said. “They will be able to focus their energy on coming up with useful new ideas and machines will implement the ideas.”

“The reasons why robots prevail in many domains are they are speedier, more powerful and more accurate than men,” Park said. “But it is still human beings who decide how much freedom they grant to robots and who embed rules in software.”

According to a report by the Korea Employment Information Service in March, mostly low-skill, low-wage jobs involving repetitive tasks would disappear in favor of automation in an imminent future.

Concrete producers topped the list of jobs to be replaced by AI robots by 2020, followed by butchers, rubber and plastic producers, security guards and tax administrators.

The data, analyzed based on a model by Oxford University’s Michael Osborne and Carl Frey, also showed that professional workers such as loss adjusters (ranked 40th), doctors (44th) and air traffic controllers (79th) were at relatively high risk among other specialized occupations to be taken over by the machines.

Those in careers requiring human interaction and negotiation skills, such as actors, artists, musicians and photographers, were less likely to be replaced by machines.

Park Ka-yeol, a researcher at KEIS, contended that clerical and manual jobs are at a higher risk of being replaced because AI robots are better than human beings at repetitive tasks with job definitions that are simple and clear.

“Human beings will excel at projects that are difficult to understand under existing rules and require creative, artistic perspectives,” Park said. “Only jobs that boost mankind’s happiness and require teamwork and interaction with other individuals will survive.”

Park noted, however, that the Korean labor market might be vulnerable to such changes because it is heavily reliant on administrative jobs and lacks a talent pool of experts in technological sectors.

“Workers will be able to work with and make use of machines to improve labor productivity in the new age of machines,” he said. “Simpler tasks should be given to those with less experience while professionals should focus on doing complicated tasks, which will eventually reduce working hours per person and lead to job-sharing.”

Cheon yang-ha, who teaches computer science at Yongin University, said that laborers themselves should be more prepared through education so as not to be excluded.

“As barriers among industries collapse in the age of new technologies, workers should receive education on a regular basis to learn about not only new technologies but also other sectors such as finance, medicine, humanity and law that can fused with technologies.”

According to a survey released by Swiss bank UBS shortly before this year’s World Economic Forum, Korea ranked No. 25 among 139 countries in terms of its ability to adjust to the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It was measured in five categories: labor market flexibility, educational system, infrastructure, technological ability and legal protection.

Professor Lee of KAIST Business School underscored the need to reform heavy regulations and the labor market to make it more flexible and create jobs in uncertain times.

“As people don’t need to work as much as they used to, jobs should be shared. For that, the country should encourage companies to create jobs by making the market more flexible,” he said. “With the help of technologies, companies should create a flexible working environment where more women and elderly can find employment. They can work from home part-time, for example.”

The technological progress and automation, however, will inevitably lead to greater inequality among workers, companies and countries, another expert pointed out.

“The adaptability to use technologies will create a digital divide, though it will eventually be narrowed in a few decades,” said Kang Jeong-soo, a director of Digital Society Institute.

“Rich companies invest more in developing technology, which will further sharpen their competitive edge. Skilled workers who can develop and control machines will earn a lot more income (than the rest,)” he said. “And the gap will be already too big to close.”

Lee Il-young, who teaches economics at Hanshin University, said that technological developments have been associated with capitalist leaders, excluding laborers.

“Technological progress could play out in an undemocratic way unless the government intervenes and creates a fair system. For example, Web users create content, but it is portal sites who monopolize profits,” Lee said.

He cited the weak status of Korean workers, with a third of workers being temporarily or indirectly hired, and the large gap between small-sized companies and large firms, which he said will only worsen along with technological progress.

“Technology itself is neutral. It is human beings’ job to set fair rules and lead the technology in a positive direction so that everyone can share the prosperity,” he said.

“South Korea will not be able to adapt to the new digital age and will lag behind unless it changes the old way of top-down governance, government monopoly of authority and conglomerate-centered business ecosystem.”

By Ock Hyun-ju (