Digital Reporter

Artificial intelligence (AI) is dramatically changing the global business landscape. And its looming growth in the Philippines is imposing a huge challenge both in the industry sector and the labor force.

While it is seen to bring cost efficiency to businesses in the future by allowing computer systems to perform tasks that normally require human intelligence, some see AI as a threat that could leave a big number of Filipinos unemployed, especially those in the country’s $25‑billion business process outsourcing industry.

According to a report released by the International Labor Organization in July last year, 49% of all employment in the Philippines faces a high risk of automation in the next couple of decades.

The anticipated rise of AI also prompted Senator Paolo Benigno “Bam” A. Aquino IV, who chairs the Senate Committee on Science and Technology, to file a resolution to conduct an inquiry on the government’s preparedness to address the negative impacts of the technology on Filipino workers.

“These systems use artificial intelligence and are capable of performing the tasks of human employees, putting their employment in peril,” Aquino said in his speech, referring to the increased use of chatbots among local businesses.

But Jonathan de Luzuriaga, president of the Philippine Software Industry Association (PSIA), sees the rise of this technology as an opportunity rather than an area of concern.

“A lof of people are saying that we’re at the cusp of the fourth industrial revolution and if there’s any lesson that we’ve learned from the first three industrial revolutions, it’s that it’s going to take away jobs,” he said at a roundtable interview with reporters at the 5th Conference last Oct. 24 at SMX Convention Center, SM Aura, in Taguig City.

But there’s a bright side: “It will also create new opportunities and new jobs.”

According to de Luzuriaga, the Philippines will remain a big source of jobs that involve human touchpoints and retain its title as the call center capital of the world despite the introduction of AI.

“With things going digital, it’s far easier now to put a layer of AI and automation. But customer‑human touchpoint is not going to go away and I think it’s imperative for this country to make a very strong position in terms of being the center of excellence for human touchpoint because it’s still going to grow, there’s still going to be a market there, it’s not going to be totally eliminated,” he explained.

“It’s going to happen whether we like it or not. On a personal note, if we’re going to get disrupted, my take is, why don’t we disrupt ourselves? Because we certainly have enough talent within the nation to actually create our own innovation thats going to produce better customer experience for clients that we serve,” he added.

Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) Undersecretary Mochito Ibrahim echoes the same sentiment.

“Instead of getting afraid with the advent of AI trying to disrupt the industry, [that] Filipinos might lose their jobs, we should look at this as an opportunity for us because our supply of talent is constant,” he said. “[It is] an opportunity for us to move them up the value chain for them to have more complex services or jobs. You know, let’s give the low level jobs to robots.”

Promoting awareness

Luzuriaga said the first step to address the threats imposed by AI is to promote awareness about it among Filipinos who are likely to be affected by the incorporation of the technology.

“Given the fact that we are such a resilient nation and we have a workforce that has a good head on its shoulder, I’m very positive that we could surpass any of these challenges,” he said. “We need to train our workforce and develop algorithms, understand them and come up with utilization of all these platforms, that’s the first level. The first step really is to orient people who are already writing code, making them understand newer technologies that are coming.”

He added that industries should capitalize on the country’s younger workforce that has the ability to adapt to new technologies.

“They say millennials adapt to technologies faster than any other generations. The Philippines is in a very good position because we are entering into the golden age of our workforce wherein in the next couple of years our workforce will be between the age of 23 [and] about 33. That I think is a situation where the stars up aligned where there is an opportunity happening. These people are more adept [at] learning new technologies and adapting to changes,” he said.

For Winston Cruz, vice president of PSIA and managing director of Accenture Delivery Centers Philippines, the country’s adaptability to AI and other emerging technologies lies in the hands of the Filipino workers.

“If you really look at it, AI is not going to be successful in implementation if it is pure technology, you need the process expertise, and that’s where our industry is very good at, you’ve got to get those skills up to the chain [because] they’re needed by our AI implementors. Without the process knowledge AI will not work,” Cruz said.


Government and academe support

According to Luzuriaga, the industry sector should collaborate with the government and the education sector in creating programs that will prepare students who will comprise the country’s future workforce.

“It’s a good indication that we created DICT. It’s a good indication that the government realizes the important of information communications technology. With DICT there is more hope from the industry side that government will react faster to opportunities because when you talk about talent development you talk about a lot of government agencies,” he said. “With DICT at the helm hopefully we could help push other and empower other government agencies to adapt to industry requirements faster.”

Ibrahim said DICT is working with the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) to create specific programs on AI. Moreover, he added that the government should also provide colleges and universities with access to new technologies given that 70% of Filipino graduates every year come from the provinces.

“We just need our universities to curate more grounded [programs], allow students to be more adaptable to changes in the real world. We’re trying to work with academe and the industry in trying to address this,” he said.