Earlier this week, we revealed the top tech companies in Singapore. Now our gaze returns to this thriving location, as we interview a native from the area — Bensen Koh — to give his insight on the future of work.
Bensen is a consultant in Access Partnership’s Asia team. His day job is to help clients find opportunities in the face of an increasingly uncertain future by analysing tech policy trends across Asia. He also engages top policymakers to advocate for effective and sustainable tech policy and regulation.
In short, he is steeped in that area of the Venn diagram where emerging technologies, sustainability and regulation interact. An area that is likely to dictate the future of work. With an interest in both AI and satellites, we wanted to know more…
What was your first role in tech and what is your current role today?
My first role was as part of the team that developed Singapore’s inaugural drone regulatory framework in the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore, where I also worked on promoting the domestic unmanned aircraft industry.
Later on, in the Transport Ministry, I helped manage tech grants for the maritime and aviation sectors, reviewing project proposals on solutions like smart remote towers, digital twins, autonomous vessels, and others.
These days, I’m a tech policy consultant. My clients are in the cloud and connectivity space, and I support them by analysing tech policy trends in Asia, evaluating the future risk and impact on their business, and working together to develop possible mitigation strategies.
Two areas in particular that I focus on are AI and satellite connectivity.
What jobs do you think AI might replace?
The best study into this issue that I have read so far is the joint paper by OpenAI, OpenResearch and UPenn titled “GPTs are GPTs: An Early Look at the Labor Market Impact Potential of Large Language Models”. The paper sought to define different types of work across different occupations and to then measure how “exposed” these types of tasks are to Generative Pre-trained Transformers (GPTs).
Interestingly, the study found that higher-wage, white-collar jobs were generally more highly exposed, although notably science and critical thinking skills were less exposed. The study also found that up to a fifth of jobs have at least 50% of their tasks “exposed”, although it notes that the study is not able to differentiate between labour-augmenting and labour-replacing effects.
Survey researchers, translators and quantitative analysts were all listed as highly exposed occupations. But that’s not to say that blue-collar jobs are all safe. The combination of AI and autonomous technologies means that jobs such as factory workers or delivery drivers are at risk.
One key issue is that even amongst highly exposed types of jobs, the impact of AI could differ. Broadly, they could have a labour-augmenting effect (for example, generative AI tools could greatly increase productivity in the legal sector, but there will always be a need for human lawyers) or they could have a labour-replacing effect (for example, AI chatbots could completely replace call centres).
Which tech skills will be in most demand over the next 12 months? And ten years?
If we’re thinking conventionally about tech skills, conventional wisdom tells us that for the foreseeable future, cybersecurity and AI will continue to be areas where human talent is in high demand.
But tech is not limited to the tech sector, and it has proliferated in most industries. If we want to think more broadly about tech competency outside the tech sector, it would be useful to think about the longer-lasting impact of AI on the workplace.
This is an oversimplification, but the proliferation of AI tools will broadly bring about two broad sets of benefits.
First, it will increase productivity. For example, without AI, in order to produce say an economic impact analysis, we would typically have a more junior staff with some expertise perform the first analysis, and then have a more experienced worker review and improve on the work. With the right AI tools, an AI assistant could help to produce that first draft for review, and with the right prompts it could probably do it in much less time.
Second, AI tools will narrow the competency gap between experts and non-experts. For example, let’s say I’m a programmer in a gaming company and I want to pitch an idea to the bosses. I’d have to get some help from a graphic designer to flesh out the idea and sell the concept. But with the right AI tools, I’d be able to use AI to prepare some concept art and maybe even create a musical score to set the tone.
What these two examples suggest to me is that if you are going into the tech sector, it would be good to develop some deep tech competency as we can expect the demand for junior tech staff to be comparatively lower, since a more experienced programmer with AI support can now produce a lot more code. Alternatively, if you are in some other sector or field, having the flexibility and breadth of knowledge could allow you to use AI tools to do a lot more things and add a lot more value to the company.
Is there any science fiction story that, in your view, successfully predicts the future?
I’m a huge fan of Masamune Shiro’s Ghost in the Shell series. Obviously, I’m not talking about the fights between cyborg super soldiers. Admittedly, the future it predicts also leans very heavily into the Neuralink direction. But it still raises many poignant questions about how technology could shape our society.
AI features a lot in this world. Several arcs explore the potential use of AI to cyberbully targets and gaslight them with a level of realism that generative AI can now provide, causing enough emotional distress to lead to self-harm and suicide. With the rise of cancel culture and the success of ChatGPT, this has definitely become more fact than fiction.
It also raises broader, more philosophical questions about the impact of AI on our society. AI will increasingly play the role of our interfacing medium with digital space, as a form of personal assistant that helps to curate and package what we see. As this continues, will it become a homogenizing force? Or a divisive force?
The promulgation of AI and reduction of the capability gap between human intelligence and artificial intelligence could also well lead to a countervailing movement that seeks to ascribe or enshrine some additional value to human thoughts and feelings separate from the productivity measures of our capitalist society – the eponymous “ghost” in our shells. But how will this movement manifest, and will it be a positive movement or a destructive one like in the series?
Which areas of society do you think will be more impacted by technology?
The impact of technology is so pervasive it is difficult to pinpoint specific areas that are more impacted or less impacted. The economist Yanis Varoufakis has even coined a new term – techno feudalism – which he argues has come to replace capitalism as the fundamental organising logic of our society and economy.
We might think that those people living in remote and rural areas with no digital access are not impacted by technology, but in a sense, the impact on them is the loss of opportunities and access to services. In any case, with the rise of low-earth-orbit constellations and satellite broadband, those living in such rural areas should hopefully at least have the choice to purchase connectivity, if they so choose.
One great upcoming change that I expect to see over the next ten years is a change in how our society is impacted by technology. If you give me the leeway to oversimplify, in the past decade or so, we have seen how technology has come to shape and even dominate the way we consume products, services and content. We shop on Amazon (we have Shopee, Lazada and Taobao where I live). We use digital platforms for our payments and transactions. We stream our shows on Netflix and Viu, and we get our news from aggregators or, worse still, social media.
With the rise of generative AI, and the advanced capabilities of large foundation models, tech will play a larger role in the way we produce things. Setting aside concerns about job replacement and displacement, or even Yuval Noah Harari’s hypothetical rise of the “useless class”, it’s interesting to consider the role AI will play in the production of content.
In this age of social media and YouTube, content production isn’t limited to the media and publishing world. Social media users effectively produce themselves as content. More worryingly, there also seems to be evidence that the response to such content plays an increasing role in the construction of their identity. How will society be impacted once the use of AI tools in the production of our social media becomes the norm?
This is a complicated issue, and it is arguably too early to tell. But given the amazing capabilities of AI to create deep fakes and convincing fantasies (the Singapore digital regulator has used the term “hallucinations”), we may see an exacerbation of dissociation or other mental health issues amongst social media users.
What is a recent example of technology disrupting work that you found interesting?
One example I find very interesting is the rise of Play-to-Earn (P2E) games. To clarify, I’d be the first to admit that P2E gaming can be problematic. There are issues with many P2E scams, and even the ones that are more legitimate tend to be over-reliant on an influx of new players to keep their internal economy going.
But lower-income earners in developing economies such as the Philippines and Indonesia have turned to P2E games to replace their second jobs. These are people whose jobs do not provide a living wage and have traditionally had to work two or more gigs to make ends meet.
When the pandemic hit, a lot of those jobs (waiters, cleaners, drivers, etc) disappeared, and a growing number of these people turned to P2E to supplement their household income instead. It turned out that compared to taking on a second job, P2E allowed them to work from home (something that their education level would not otherwise qualify them for), and let them spend their “downtime” a bit more restfully and together with their family.
The economics of P2E aside, to me, this example really highlights the importance of digital access. When we think of tech we tend to think of billionaires in Silicon Valley or huge enterprising investing in R&D for futuristic solutions. I’ve also had the misfortune to meet some older people who criticise these lower-income earners for spending their money on smartphones or other devices. But you don’t have to be highly educated or a business owner in order to approach tech with an entrepreneurial spirit, and to try and take advantage of the digital economy to improve your quality of life.
Other interviews in this series
Our thanks to Bensen for taking the time to share his thoughts on the future of work. For more predictions, read on:
- Simon Long, CBRE Southeast Asia: “How do we create work environments and a culture that actively brings everyone together?”
- Clarence Ding, Simmons & Simmons: “A data scientist in Singapore is likely to face competition for their job not just from the local market, but from other very high-quality candidates in other countries”
- Christine Li, Knight Frank: “The effects of technology are likely to lead to a redefinition of jobs and skill shifts rather than apocalyptic workforce reductions”
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