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As artificial intelligence advances, millions of white-collar jobs could be obsolete soon

DAVOS, SWITZERLAND: If your job involves inputting data for a company, you may want to think about retraining in a more specialised field. Or as a plumber.

Millions of white-collar workers could now be under threat from new technology such as artificial intelligence (AI).

The issue of how best to face up to this "Fourth Industrial Revolution" has been exercising leaders this week at the World Economic Forum in this Swiss Alpine town.

The progress of AI has been "staggering", said Mr Vishal Sikka, chief executive of Indian IT services giant Infosys.

"But in many ways we are at the beginning of this evolution and we face the prospect of leaving a larger part of humanity behind than in any other (industrial) advance," he warned

Public disquiet about technological change and globalisation has already sparked a populist backlash in Western countries, culminating in Mr Donald Trump's inauguration as US President today (tomorrow, Singapore time).

But much more dislocation could yet be coming, and both the public and Western governments need to wake up to the challenge, observers say.

New technologies are "going to completely disrupt and change the working place for a long time", and governments must put in place policies, skills training and safety nets to cope, International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde said.


According to a survey by employment consultancy ManpowerGroup, up to 45 per cent of daily tasks in the workplace could be automated using current technology.

Global consultancy McKinsey said more than 60 per cent of jobs and 30 per cent of business activities could be automated today.

"We can't rely on government to re-skill people in the face of rapid technological change and automation. Business will have to drive this," said McKinsey's global managing partner Dominic Barton.

"Back office" labour, which involves clerical work such as data inputting, is seen as most at risk from IT automation.

But even professions in medicine could face upheaval.

A computer using machine intelligence is perfectly equipped to crunch through the available academic literature when analysing suspected cancer in a patient.

But the doctor would still be needed to exercise his judgement over the best course of treatment, a pattern of adding specialist value that needs to be replicated in other professions if they want to stay relevant.

People will need to be more flexible, transitioning over multiple careers during their working lifetimes, experts predict.

But certain skill-sets will likely remain in demand.

"It's always hard to find a good plumber," said Mr Alain Roumilhac, president of ManpowerGroup France who started out as a welder.- AFP