Advances in artificial intelligence are one of the most dramatic challenges of our times. Robots are starting to compete for our jobs. How will Latin America and the Caribbean take on this new challenge?
It is not the first time that human beings are facing a radical change to their way of life. However, what is different this time round and is a source of concern for many is the speed at which the change is taking place. We’ve been resilient to changes in the past, but the question we’re asking ourselves today is whether we will be able to adapt to this new state of affairs fast enough to avoid widespread chaos.
Many of today’s trade treaties, including free trade agreements, contain special chapters on technology transfer and labor policies. New technologies impact specific aspects of trade ties and regulations, such as patents and intellectual property rights or the handling of new tax regimes, customs processes, and rules of origin. The way that trade and integration mechanisms function will need to adapt to these new production techniques.
The situation is complex, to say the least. The global economy is not managing to get back onto the path to growth as it is weighed down by the economies of developing countries. As global trade stagnates, world powers are placing their hopes on innovation as a way of gaining competitiveness, increasing productivity, and boosting their economies.
Given the faltering growth of global GDP, some analysts are pointing to trends towards gradual deindustrialization (Edwards and Lawrence, 2013) and a decoupling of productivity and employment at the global level. Productivity is on the rise, but so are unemployment numbers (Bernstein and Raman, 2015), partly due to technological advances. The speed at which these new developments are unfolding and changing the realities of life (often problematically so) makes it hard to find the right solutions.
Technology brings about exponential changes, and our generation will be the first to experience more than one of these changes in its lifetime. The competitions organized by the Institute for the Integration of Latin America and the Caribbean (INTAL) in partnership with Endeavor (INTAL D-TEC), and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (INTALENT), reflect the potential of Latin American entrepreneurs to engage with the latest technology, including artificial intelligence, and incorporate it into regional start-ups.
We have witnessed the birth of the Internet and how it has spread into all parts of our lives. It is no longer possible to imagine an offline world. But while we are busy adapting to these circumstances, other newer ones are emerging. We are learning to manufacture automated minds that will be able to carry out our jobs and replace us. Machines are getting increasingly intelligent and becoming independent of us. The robot revolution is already upon us. As a result, the world’s leading consultancy firms are already working to help companies get past their fears and incorporate artificial intelligence into their production lines (see the KPMG report “Got Automatonophobia? Four Steps for Overcoming Your Fear and Getting Started with Process Automation”).
Global think tanks such as the World Economic Forum, in its publication on the future of work, and the University of Oxford, through the work of Carl Frey and M. Osborne, are placing this challenge at the top of their priorities. In Latin America and the Caribbean, there are some recent studies, such as the publication by the University of Montevideo (link in Spanish), that estimate that 54% of jobs in Uruguay run the risk of being automatized in the next 10 to 20 years.
According to Juan Enríquez, director of the Life Science Project Center at the University of Harvard, technology has become an existential dilemma (Lafia, 2016). We can try to cling on to cynicism and ignore it, but its impact will be inevitable. The most intelligent path to take would seem to be to try to understand how it will affect us and work to find solutions that will undoubtedly emerge from collective action. It may be a global revolution but it will particularly affect those countries that are unable to adapt. So how are Latin America and the Caribbean going to go about this?
The Race to Manufacture an Artificial Mind
For years, we’ve been trying to artificially reproduce the human mind. Although initially the results were largely insignificant, in recent years, science has taken giant steps forward. Robotics has advanced so much that we’ve gone from machines that carried out simple, repetitive tasks to supercomputers that are capable of processing vast quantities of data, diagnosing lung cancer, or saving someone from a natural disaster.
Experts believe that these types of advances will be a door into the mysteries of the human mind and the nature of biological intelligence; they hope that we will one day be capable of reproducing these exactly. The concept of machine learning, or automated learning, is where we are really seeing progress. With minimal human intervention, robots are capable of learning from experience and accumulating this, becoming increasingly effective at making decisions. We depend more and more on robots to confirm data, to cross-check an analysis, or to test results.
Are today’s robots as intelligent as we are? Not yet, but they will be. Just like a child who needs to learn to expand their skills, robots that learn will one day become as or more intelligent than we are. At the very least, they will be more productive, because they won’t need to eat or sleep. With this idea in mind, in 1993, Rodney Brooks—then director of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab—created Cog, one of the most sophisticated humanoid robots ever developed. Cog gave rise to the idea that the key to artificial intelligence lies in a robot being able to perceive and learn like a child.
It’s no longer about being surprised by the idea that a machine like Deep Blue won a chess game against the world champion Kasparov in 1997, or that AlphaGo beat the world’s best Go player last year. What is really behind these advances are the levels of automation and deep learning that enable machines to carry out tasks that previously only humans were capable of. And that terrifies us.
Martin Ford describes that fear in his book The Rise of the Robots, in which he claims that not even highly skilled people are safe from being replaced by machines. The world’s most advanced robots are managing to carry out tasks that up to now we had thought were the exclusive domain of human beings.
What Types of Tasks Can Robots Carry out?
The military and defense industry has historically been at the forefront of technological development. Technologies such as GPS or voice command (SIRI) were developed and driven by the US Department of Defense. Although these went on to be used commercially among the civilian population (Steve Jobs bought the license for SIRI from SRI International), the level of investment needed to research and develop this sort of application tends to be more possible in government sectors.
A clear example of this are the robots created by Boston Dynamics, a spin-off from MIT that was acquired by Google. Its robot BigDog could become a soldier’s best friend by carrying heavy loads in the field. In contrast to its canine counterpart, WildCat’s skill is being able to cross difficult terrain at high speed. Atlas is a humanoid robot trained to carry out search and rescue tasks. It has two systems of vision and its arms enable it to carry out complex tasks, including climbing steep terrain. All of these robots could easily be included in any combat squadron and could also be used for rescue tasks in cities that have been devastated by an earthquake or to help a group of mountain climbers who have been trapped by an avalanche.
Boston Dynamics’ most advanced humanoid robot, Atlas. Credit: Boston Dynamics.
But not all robots have the noble purpose of defending or rescuing us. Some will simply make our lives easier. Several Silicon Valley-based companies have already started to market potentially superproductive roboemployees. Talley, created by Simbre Robotics, is a tower that roams the aisles of stores and rapidly recognizes which products are not on display. Another firm called Savioke has recently launched a robot concierge called Botlr that will bring you your room service order without you even needing to get dressed to open the door: discretion is guaranteed. When it comes to surveillance, KnighScope has created the K3 and K5 robots, which can monitor their surroundings, distinguish between normal and suspicious activity, record everything in real time, and sound the alarm if necessary. While hundreds of robots are populating the earth, others are taking to the skies. Drones will start soon bring us our mail, our morning coffee, medicine…
If there are machines that will really change the world for the better, it will be the ones that can cure us, save lives, or even revolutionize the ways we produce goods and services. The transportation sector is witnessing how autonomous cars will be taking over our city streets before long. Among the many advantages of this is the possibility of responding more efficiently to a problem that is currently plaguing all countries with heavy traffic flows. Over 1.3 million people per year die in road accidents, and most of these deaths happen in developing countries. The development of autonomous cars and their ability to predict what is happening around them in real time could reduce this rate drastically.
Robots are also becoming experts in human health. At the last International Conference on Robotics and Automation (held in Stockholm, 2016), scientists from MIT presented a tiny robot that looked like a chewing gum wrapper and that was called Origami Robot. It’s designed to patch holes in the stomach or even retrieve objects that a child might swallow, such as a watch battery (a common household accident that can cause serious damage), and remove them. IBM is also in the race and wants to make Watson the best doctor in the world.
But if it’s a global revolution that we’re talking about, experts are quick to point out that the biggest, most significant changes to global employment will be in the manufacturing sector. This will have a global impact and is already sparking widespread debate and concern. What interests people about this robot revolution is not so much if artificial intelligence will mean the end of the human race (a terrifying thought, but one that’s still too far away to be a serious source of concern) or if it will enable us to reach the closest star system to earth, Alpha Centauri. What people are most interested in—and most afraid of—is whether robots will steal our jobs, leaving us without the means that have historically enabled us to live.
Take, for example, Baxter, a friendly robot with big eyes and large hands that has already earned himself the employee-of-the-month badge in several factories around the world. His creators, Boston-based firm Rethink Robots, claim that Baxter “is a flexible, safe, low-cost alternative to outsourcing and automation”. They are marketing him as the ideal employee for carrying out repetitive, monotonous tasks so as to free up skilled workers for more complex tasks. Factory employees look on apprehensively as Baxter carries out increasingly more tasks, getting better and better at doing so without ever getting tired or asking for holidays or bonus pay, all while getting cheaper by the day.
Baxter at work in a factory. Credit: Rethink Robotics.
Job Creation Versus Job Destruction
Some experts are confident that robotics will be the decisive factor in job creation in coming years. According to a study published by Metra Martech in 2011, the more than one million robots that are currently at work have been responsible for creating between three and five million new jobs. Trends indicate that in the next few years, another million quality jobs will be created around the world. Robots will help to create more employment opportunities in the most critical industries of this century, such as solar and wind energy, battery manufacturing, food production, or electronics (Metra Martech, 2011).
As Peter Gorle points out in the same report, robots will grow in three areas that are critical for development. First, in sectors that are dangerous for humans such as working in mines, exploring the seabed, or at nuclear power plants. Second, in activities that people cannot carry out, such as exploring the surface of Mars or stars in the solar system. Third, in sectors where high salaries make it more efficient to invest in robots who are capable of carrying out those tasks, such as the transportation industry, manufacturing, or security (Metra Martech, 2011).
The most recent report from the World Economic Forum, The Future of Jobs, suggests that no sector will escape the impact that technology will have on the creation, destruction, or relocation of jobs. The report estimates that 65% of the children that are currently starting primary school will eventually carry out jobs that still do not exist. However, the most worrying aspect of this report, which contradicts more positive outlooks, is the possibility that over the next four years net employment creation will be negative, to the tune of around 5 million jobs. In other words, although around 2 million new jobs will be created as a result of these changes, another 7 million jobs will simply disappear (World Economic Forum, 2016).
Some of these burgeoning trends can already be seen, mainly in developing countries. With efficient, productive, cheap robots like Baxter, large manufacturing companies have started relocating their factories to the places where this technology is designed and the greatest purchasing power is: Europe, the United States, or Japan. Adidas, for instance, has started automating its factories and has decided to try relocating them to Germany but without having to worry about prohibitively high European labor costs. Its “employees” (that is, the robots) are built nearby, and production is also now much more efficient in terms of transportation costs, as its consumers are just around the corner (Shotter and Whipp, 2016).
This tendency is becoming increasingly marked, and its impact is twofold. On the one hand, robots are replacing low-skilled workers (and even not-so-low-skilled workers), intensifying the trend towards unemployment in the manufacturing sector. On the other hand, countries that traditionally relocated their factories to be more efficient in terms of labor costs are now deciding to locate them on the basis of their markets, which are countries with the greatest purchasing power. By so doing, the richest countries will concentrate not only capital and the consumer market but also the “labor force” (which will now be robots). So what will be left for developing countries? “In the short term, robots may impact the labor market. But in the long term, the research shows that each robot generates two new jobs because companies become more efficient and profitable,” says Phil Webb, professor of robotics and automation at the University of Cranfield in the United Kingdom, in an interview with the BBC (2013).
“The speed of these changes is what is making it different this time,” explains Nico Miai, co-founder of The Future Society at Harvard University. “The speed at which the value of knowledge and know-how can be transferred from one sector of the population to another is what we should be worrying about and focusing on.”
In their book The Second Machine Age, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argue that the dizzying rate of technological change is out of sync with our ability to adapt. Technology will enable us to live longer and better, but it won’t benefit all people in the same way. Those with better educations may be able to survive this situation, although there are no guarantees, even for them (Brynjolfsson and McAfee, 2014).
The authors argue however that there are still key areas of work in which humans play and will play a fundamental role, such as coming up with ideas, scientific discoveries, artistic creativity… Technology will simply amplify people’s capacities (Bernstein and Raman, 2015). Emotions, leadership, and dexterity are skills that robots find it hard to emulate, at least so far.
Adaptation in Latin America and the Caribbean
Latin America and the Caribbean are taking part in this robot revolution in some ways, although its impact on the region’s economy is still limited. According to the International Federation of Robotics, it is estimated that by 2018 there will be more than 1.3 million industrial robots installed in factories throughout the world. Depending on the country, up to 85% of manufacturing jobs could be replaced by machines. In Latin America and the Caribbean, the countries making the greatest attempts to automate their factories are Mexico and Brazil. According to the Robotic Industries Association (Anandan, 2016), between 2014 and 2015, Mexico tripled its purchases of industrial robots to more than 6000 units. This is partly due to the recovery of the US market and the need to automate the automotive industry.
One of the keys to keeping up with this global transformation will be the progressive automation of our industries in order to achieve higher productivity levels. However, it will also be fundamental to ask ourselves how to contribute to the development of the robotics sector and technology in general at the global level. Innovation and internationalization are decisive factors for the region’s structural transformation, productive growth, and macroeconomic performance in general (ECLAC, 2016). The region’s entrepreneurial drive will also be key.
Young enterprises, especially those that grow at a rapid rate, will be a source not only of new jobs but also of breakthrough innovations that will increase productivity in many sectors. In today’s world, the Internet gives us access to a global market of consumers and enables us to rapidly convert an idea or prototype into a product or service that is ready to be consumed. In the near future, everything will be stored in the cloud, ready to be transported by a drone.
Some companies or entrepreneurs have worked hard to make inroads into the world of artificial intelligence and robotics. One such example is Sensus 3D, a surgery simulator designed by young Argentine engineers which drastically reduces malpractice rates in surgery. Or Jarvis, a robot developed by Chilean scientists that can interact with humans and help them during events like natural disasters.
Latin America is also home to successful start-ups run by young people who have been awarded prizes by the MIT Technology Review in the fields of autonomous transportation, robots that convert sound into sign language, or minisubmarines that can explore the seabed through a supercomputer. All these advances contribute not only to the local economy but also have a significant impact on these countries’ international trade and are a driving force for integration. For example, INDIGO is a company started by the young Costa Rican Sergio Ballester that uses drones to help improve crop productivity through aerial mapping and photography and precision agriculture. What sets the company apart is automatic learning software that allows a computer to learn on the job, improving its results the more it is used. The company is already reaching the markets of neighboring countries.
Sergio Ballester, MIT Technology Review prize-winner in 2015. Credit: MIT Technology Review en español.
We need to emphasize driving technology in the sectors that are key for our economies. In an interconnected world, it’s not about being the best at everything, but rather at what sets us apart. Knowledge will be increasingly specialized and collaborative. As Harvard professor Ricardo Hausmann says, countries will stand out because of their technological development, which he defines as their capacity to create the tools, write the code, and develop the necessary know-how to revolutionize a given sector.
It’s not just about driving education in itself, but about teaching individuals specific skills and how to work in teams. According to this theory of economic development (Hausmann and Hidalgo, 2014), it’s like learning to play Scrabble. The number of letters we get allows us to make different possible combinations and write more words. Countries will differ from one another in the number of letters they get and the number of combinations they manage to make. The more they specialize in a given sector, the more words they will write. It’s about diversification and ubiquity.
Like many other experts, Hausmann is not worried about decreases in employment in Latin America and the Caribbean. Historically speaking, there have always been cycles that have shaken up the labor market. What worries Hausmann is that the countries in the region still don’t seem to understand that until we generate sufficient know-how in our more competitive sections to set us apart, we won’t even be able to sit down to play the first round of Scrabble.
Another recommendation is to drive entrepreneurship in the region. Young, dynamic, resilient firms will adapt better to the new rules of the game, creating new, better-quality jobs and demanding improvements in the skills that workers need to have.
Third, we need to foster integration, cooperation, and migration between countries. The exchange of knowledge and collaboration on projects that require high levels of investment or a wide field of knowledge will be the keys to success. At the same time, this integration needs to take place not just between countries and regions, but also within each country. Institutions like universities, private companies, the public sector, and nongovernmental organizations need to function as collaborative spaces where ideas, financing, and creativity flow, feeding the bloodstreams of all their members.
Technology is not our destiny, but is instead a tool to help us choose what our destiny will be. Technology may enable us to live better, but it depends on us whether the result will be increased prosperity for all or increased inequality. If we insist on believing that developing artificial intelligence and robotics signals the end for our jobs and our futures, this will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
We can’t ignore progress. What we can do as individuals, as organizations, and as societies is to make the right decisions early enough to decide our own fates, as we’ve done so many times in history. In response to the specific problem of falling employment as a result of robotics, among other things, specialists like Martin Ford propose compromises such as a universal living wage to ensure we all earn enough to survive. Others are more optimistic: Vivek Wadhwa, professor at Singularity University, animatedly suggests that robots will perform part of our work, and that will allow us to focus on the sciences, the arts, and, ultimately, on being happier.
It might take a little longer for robotics to impact employment in Latin America and the Caribbean than in developed countries. This delay may be an opportunity for us, giving us room to maneuver, adapt rapidly, and make decisions that will help us cushion the impact of these changes. But if we just put off dealing with it, the blow will be even heavier. No sector in any country will escape the robot revolution and the reach of artificial intelligence. The balance of positive and negative impacts will ultimately depend on us, our institutions, and our capacity to set the global agenda and decide how we want to prepare ourselves for it.
When will all this happen? While you’ve been reading this article. The ROBOlution is already upon us. What are we going to do about it?
Anandan, T.M. 2016. “Mexico, Land of Automatización Opportunity,” Robotic Industries Association, April 22.
BBC. 2013. “Los robots avanzan sobre la economía mundial [Robots are advancing on the world economy].”
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Brynjolfsson, E., and McAfee, A. 2014. The Second Machine Age. New York: Norton & Company.
Edwards, L., and Lawrence, R. 2013. Rising Tide. Is Growing in Emerging Economies Good for the United States? Washington, DC: Peterson Institute for International Economics.
Ford, M. 2015. The Rise of the Robots. New York: Basic Books.
Hausmann, R., and Hidalgo, C. 2014. The Atlas of Economic Complexity. Cambridge, US: MIT Press.
Hernández, R.; Hualde, A.; Mulder, N.; and Sauvé, P. 2016. Innovation and Internationalization of Latin American Services. Chile: ECLAC.
International Labour Organization (ILO). 2015. 2015 Labour Overview: Latin America and the Caribbean. Lima: ILO, Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean.
Lafia, M. 2016. Revolution of the Present. Documentary, 1:24, https://www.rebelmouse.com/revolutionofthepresent/
Metra Martech. 2011. “Positive Impact of Industrial Robots on Employment.” Report. London, UK: Metra Martech Limited.
Powell, A., coordinator. 2016. Time to Act: Latin America and the Caribbean Facing Strong Challenges. Washington, DC: IADB.
Shotter, J. and Whipp, L. 2016. “Robot Revolution Helps Adidas Bring Shoemaking Back to Germany.” Financial Times, June 8.
World Economic Forum. 2016. The Future of Jobs: Employment, Skills and Workforce Strategy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Geneva: World Economic Forum.
 Machine learning is a branch of artificial intelligence which aims to develop techniques that enable machines to learn.
 In 1997, the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue defeated world chess champion Garry Kasparov. In 2011, another IBM computer, Watson, defeated the champions of the famous American TV gameshow Jeopardy. In March 2016, AlphaGo, a supercomputer trained to play one of the most complicated games in the world, Go, beat the world’s best player, South Korean Lee Se-dol.