A new ranking – Countries ready for the coming wave of automation

South Korea, Singapore, Japan, Germany and Canada are the countries most prepared for the coming wave of automation driven by robotics, artificial intelligence and other technologies, according to a new ranking by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

South Korea heads the index based on a country’s innovation and research environment, education and labour market policies.

Estonia, France, the United Kingdom, United States and Australia round off the top 10 – all of them high income countries – in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s ‘automation readiness index’, which ranks 25 major countries – the G20 economies plus five others including South Africa, Vietnam, Indonesia and the United Arab Emirates.

The top five are way ahead of even the next five in the top 10, based on a set of 52 indicators – and even the best-performing countries need proper policies to meet the challenges head-on, including the adaptation of education systems, according to the just-released report, Who is Ready for the Coming Wave of Automation?

“In this sense, no countries are genuinely ready for the age of intelligent automation,” it says in a damning assessment, not even Germany. “The same may be said of East Asian countries, where governments are actively supporting the diffusion of these technologies in manufacturing and other sectors,” it says.

“The lack of engagement between policy-makers, industry, educational specialists and other stakeholders that must inform this policy is alarming,” the report reveals.

This is not the result of government laziness or inattention, says Elizabeth Fordham, senior advisor for global relations in the OECD’s Directorate for Education and Skills. Rather, there are an enormous number of unknowns about precisely how automation technologies will affect the workforce and what types of responses will be effective.

“I don’t think anybody confidently predicts what the implications are for the labour market in terms of the jobs that will be available, still less in terms of the types of knowledge, skills and attitudes that will be important in it,” she is quoted in the report as saying.

Education at the centre

For countries to have a long-term strategy to deal with the challenges of automation, “education must be at the centre of it,” the report notes, with a large proportion of the index devoted to educational indicators including quality of universities.

“Humans will continue to play a role in designing or operating these systems, and it is expected that many activities will continue to require the distinct skills of humans. Work performed by people will be continuously redefined, requiring the constant updating of skills,” the report says.

Only a handful of countries, including the index leaders, have undertaken initiatives in curriculum reform, lifelong learning, occupational training and workplace flexibility.

Although there is no consensus on whether automated artificial intelligence or AI will be a net destroyer of jobs, there is emerging agreement that automation technologies will replace certain tasks performed by workers as much, or more, than they replace entire jobs.

South Korea tops the section of the index on education policies geared to meet the coming challenges, followed by Estonia, Singapore, Germany, Canada, France, Japan, United Arab Emirates, the UK and the US. Australia is just outside the top 10.

“Schools will need to teach students skills that software or machines cannot yet easily replicate. At the same time, they must provide students with a grounding in certain technical skills, such as computational thinking, which are likely to be required in most future roles. Many such roles will also require an understanding of AI techniques and robotics,” the report says.

Monumental challenge

“As these technologies evolve, so will the roles of humans that work with them. This continuous transformation will demand a high degree of adaptability on the part of individuals to continue learning throughout their working lives; educational and training systems must cater effectively to this demand.”

And it notes that “this is a monumental challenge for even the most developed of countries, requiring big picture thinking among government, educators and businesses”.

According to the experts interviewed for the report, there is plenty of thinking but very little planning or action on this front anywhere in the world today.

“No one has gotten to grips with the required strategic planning for educational change in this context, and there is a dire need for it,” says Rose Luckin, professor of learner-centred design at University College London.

All five of the top-scoring countries in the education category have at least begun to adapt teacher training to impart “21st century competencies” which include critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity.

South Korea is the category leader, partly on the strength of its efforts to reform teacher training and assessment and to update school curricula, with a particular emphasis on integrating soft skills into classwork, the report said.

Lifelong learning initiatives

Another area is rejigging education systems to enable adults to upgrade skills as workplace requirements change, driven by technology. Some of this reskilling and training will have to be delivered by universities, which are ill-equipped to do so in the majority of countries covered by the report.

Singapore is seeking to meet this challenge by providing citizens credits under a programme launched in January 2016 as part of the government’s SkillsFuture initiative.

Every citizen over 25 years is eligible to receive a credit of SG$500 (US$370) towards an ‘individual learning account’ to pay for courses delivered by some 500 government-sponsored training providers.

Saadia Zahidi, the World Economic Forum’s head of education, gender and employment initiatives, says in an interview for the report, however, that while it is a laudable initiative, a clear picture of its actual utility to people is unlikely to emerge for several years, given the nature of lifelong learning.

Sherie Ng, the Singapore-based managing director for Asia Pacific of NICE, a software provider, also praises the initiative but worries about course content. “It’s not clear that the training being provided is adequate to the demands of the future workplace,” she says.

“Educational institutions in Asia are far behind businesses in training and [the] development of digital skill sets needed for this age. They are still producing electrical and mechanical engineers.

“Businesses like ours face major challenges due to the lack of a ready pool of digitally skilled labour; hence the need to train and develop them ourselves to meet the demands we already have,” she points out.

Labour market policies

In the longer term, widespread adoption of intelligent automation technologies is likely to have a profound effect on labour markets.

The challenge for government and industry, with the help of education institutions, is to ensure people can obtain the skills needed to operate effectively in the future workplace and take advantage of opportunities brought about by automation.

The countries where such policies “are closest to being in place” are the same countries that are the most supportive of AI and robotics innovation and are beginning to address associated educational challenges, the report finds.

Germany, Singapore and South Korea share top position in the labour market index category, which includes workforce transition programmes. They are followed closely by Japan.

“The top three earn high scores in nearly every labour market policy indicator, including in government support and encouragement of workplace retraining, as well as approaches to vocational training,” says the report.

The OECD’s Fordham notes pockets of vocational training success in Germany and other European countries, but observes a “long tail” of vocational schools training large numbers of people to work in low-skill jobs. “Vocational training in most countries is currently far from being able to address the challenges of automation,” she says.