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7 Takeaways From President Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s Fireside Chat At The Singapore FinTech Festival (SFF) 2023

“You got to keep changing through life without changing yourself,” – Singapore President Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

The 8th edition of the Singapore FinTech Festival (SFF) is currently underway at the Singapore Expo from 15 to 17 November 2023. It is one of the largest gatherings in the world for the finance, technology, and policy communities to learn and exchange ideas, attracting over 60,000 attendees and over 500 exhibitors from 134 countries/regions.

With this year’s theme centring around “The Application of AI in Financial Services”, many talks were lined up from industry leaders and experts who shared the latest trends, challenges, and opportunities.

One of the keynote speakers who spoke on the rise and challenges of the AI trend is Singapore President Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who previously served as the Finance Minister from December 2007 to September 2015 and had been involved in the SFF’s inaugural edition in 2016. Here are some key takeaways from his fireside chat at the SFF 2023.

Read Also: Why The Singapore FinTech Festival (SFF) Is A Must-Go Experience For Anyone In The Finance Industry

#1 Financial Services Could Be Impacted More Quickly By Technology Than Other Sectors

The adoption of fast-evolving technologies such as generative AI digital assets may have a greater impact on financial services than other sectors, though this is going to be economy-and society-wide, according to President Tharman.

For instance, it took companies like Twitter (now known as X), Spotify, and Facebook between 50 and 60 months to acquire 100 million users, whereas newer platforms like ChatGPT and TikTok were able to reach the same milestone within 2 and 10 months, respectively.

The use of new machines like Large Language Models (LLM) that power the ChatGPT’s chatbots are able to take on more human characteristics, which may leave us wondering whether it will reach a point of singularity, where the machine becomes equivalent to or smarter than the human brain. While this may not happen suddenly, the change will happen progressively and faster for certain human tasks, claimed President Tharman.

#2 The Current Technological Revolution May Have A More Profound Impact On Workforce Than Any Previous Technological Revolution

Citing a research report by OpenAI – the company behind popular chatbot ChatGPT – President Tharman mentioned that jobs in the future might change in a fundamental way due to AI. Though these changes may not be as drastic in the next three or four years, there could be a more profound effect on the workforce in society in the next 10 to 15 years.

The report found that 80% of the US workforce could have at least 10% of their work tasks affected by Generative Pre-trained Transformers. However, for around 19% of workers, 50% of their tasks could be affected by AI.

President Tharman further added that while this may not mean that people are going to lose their jobs, the current technology revolution is going to be faster than any previous technological revolution in replacing human tasks while also enabling humans at the same time.

Read Also: 5 Ways Artificial Intelligence (AI) Can Be Used To Improve Your Job

#3 Important To Think About The Distributional Consequences Of AI

Unlike the earlier waves of technology, which came in the form of factory and logistics automation, which essentially replaced routine and repetitive jobs, the current wave of AI technology and LLM is taking over cognitive tasks that are done by people with better education and better incomes.

Therefore, the current technological disruption caused by AI has very different distributional consequences than the previous technological disruptions.

#4 Technology Might Upend The Traditional Hierarchy Of Jobs

Another point that President Tharman made in regard to the consequences of AI technology is the traditional hierarchy of jobs. He said that what is regarded as a better job that requires better pay might shift considerably in the years to come.

He added that the way we value IQ over EQ might change because there’s a whole range of jobs that we think require IQ that can be taken over quite quickly and done more efficiently by using LLM and AI. This may require us to rethink how we really value EQ jobs that require teamwork and collective imagination, as well as care jobs.

#5 Singapore Is An Active Collaborator On AI Safety

While AI is going to be a huge enabler, it also has the potential to lead to unintended catastrophes, including the risks associated with the loss of jobs and privacy.

While Singapore is one of the 28 countries that signed the Bletchley Declaration to work collectively on AI safety research and international collaboration, President Tharman says we are still too early in the game to even think of how we can regulate this.

He shared that we must first look out for the worst things that can happen and try to avoid the worst in matters of life and death. One example that he mentioned was the healthcare sector. While AI is going to open up a whole new field of knowledge on matters of life and death, there is still a need for human judgement and decision-making. Though some form of regulation is required within countries and internationally to continue the role of AI in the healthcare sector, it should not hold it down. While we must use a lot more AI (whether it’s in the healthcare or finance sectors), it must be done in the ethical interest of the recipient.

#6 AI Will Reduce Talent Shortages For Certain Programming Jobs, Which May Benefit Labour-Short Countries Like Singapore

Regarding the lack of highly skilled tech workers, President Tharman mentioned that in some areas, what is a shortage today may become a surplus.

We are currently in a shortage of people with all the skills required in cybersecurity and many AI-related skills. However, he also claimed that AI will replace a whole set of programming jobs, including a whole chunk of Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) and customer service businesses. This, he claimed, will be good for countries like Singapore, which is labour-short on a large middle band of programmers and coders, which it may be much less short of in the future. At the same time, it will pose challenges for developing countries that intend to catch up by getting into the BPO, programming businesses, and exporting ICT services, as these jobs will be taken over by AI.

President Tharman also suggested using technology to enable everyone in the workforce to be more productive and enjoy their jobs a lot more. To address these challenges, it’s important to adopt a collective approach, especially in societies like Singapore, which have public-private labour coordination and union coordination instead of leaving them to individual firms and individual workers.

Some collective measures that he proposed were to provide the large band of white collar workers who are doing middle to even upper middle cognitive skills with alternatives to either doing the same job differently but better enabled by new tools or moving on to other jobs.

#7 Keep Learning Through Life

On the evolution of technology, President Tharman said the beauty of today’s technologies is that you can keep learning through life. He personally shared that he himself knew little about some of these disruptive AI issues and learned new things like using ChatGPT over the weekends.

Whether it’s people coming together in community centres or places where they enjoy learning in groups, it’s now possible for us (seniors) to not only learn but stay active and keep contributing.

He also emphasised the need to become a less-aged society by making the most of our older population and enabling them to keep contributing and retaining dignity in the job for as long as possible. For instance, President Tharman shared how EQ is something that accumulates over time with more experience in life, which makes seniors a valuable part of the human sensing workforce.

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