Commentary / Japan

Computers may reshape jobs, but they won't eliminate them

by Takamitsu Sawa

Readers of this column must have had plenty of hands-on experience with rapidly advancing technological and social innovations that are making possible what had long been thought impossible. A quick historical review shows that it was in the 1980s that large and expensive mainframe computers, which only experts were able to operate, started being installed at firms, government agencies and academic institutions for a wide range of data processing tasks, from accounting and wage calculations to scientific and academic research projects.

During the 1990s, compact laptop computers that could fit into a briefcase became popular, enabling even those without any knowledge of computer science to engage in internet searches, online shopping and email communication. Thus, the computer stopped being a tool used only by engineers in specialized technology and became a personal instrument used by the general public.

The Japanese translation of “computer” is “denshi-keisanki,” which literally means “electronic calculating machine.” But that translation has become obsolete since computers today are mainly used for activities seemingly unrelated to calculating. By the way, the Chinese translation of computer is “diannao,” meaning “electronic brain” — a brilliant translation foreseeing the future roles of the computer.

The widespread use of computers has brought about dramatic changes to our lifestyle. Almost anything can be purchased through online shopping, any kind of information can be obtained free of charge by using search engines like Google and Yahoo, emails can be sent to any part of the world on a real-time basis (again for free), most news can be followed without cost and without subscribing to newspapers, railway stations are fitted with automated ticket gates, and it has become a cinch to see train and bus schedules and determine the time needed to reach a destination.

Personal computers and smartphones have made it simple to make or cancel reservations for trains, hotels and restaurants while ATMs have made it easy to withdraw, deposit and transfer money. Digitized books and newspaper articles can be read on tablet computers or smartphones. Medical records have also been digitized and are no longer kept in print.

Advertising media are gradually shifting from newspapers, magazines and TV to the internet. The strength of internet advertising is its ability to describe specifications of the new products in detail. Moreover, individual customers’ purchasing habits and search records can be assessed, and emails sent to them advertising goods and services they would likely be interested in.

As it is, it almost appeared as though newspapers, magazines, TV, retail stores, postal services, travel agencies, dictionaries and encyclopedias will all disappear. But businesses in these sectors have fought back and are showing no signs of falling easily into oblivion. Although these sectors may have been forced to scale back or face reduced profits, they are exploring ways to survive by adopting a wide variety of new and original business models that differentiate themselves from what the internet offers.

One example is a bookstore remodeling itself to offer a place for book lovers to gather. Even if e-books and digital newspapers sound the death knell for publications in print, the task of creating content will still remain in the hands of book and newspaper publishers. Indeed, by specializing in the content business, the publishers are likely to gain greater profits per employee.

A joint study conducted by Nomura Research Institute and the University of Oxford has concluded that in 10 years, artificial intelligence and robots will replace much of the work currently being done by humans, leaving 50 percent of Japan’s labor force unemployed. Specifically, the study predicts that there is an 85.9 percent chance that the profession of certified public accounting will disappear.

To me, at least, this prediction is hard to accept. The task of verifying what is written in corporate financial statements may well be handed over to AI, but the job of a certified public accountant does not end there. Auditing corporate financial statements, assessing their reliability, properly evaluating corporate operations and making suggestions when needed — these and other types of auditing tasks require not only “explicit knowledge” related to accounting and business administration but also “tacit knowledge” acquired through abundant experiences.

AI may be able to fully acquire explicit knowledge, but it cannot master tacit knowledge, which cannot be expressed in words, numbers or numerical formulas. That is why it would be utterly impossible for AI to eliminate the profession of certified public accountants although AI may contribute to making accountants’ work more efficient. But as the work of accountants becomes more efficient with the help of AI, the number of accountants and others employed by auditing offices is certain to decrease.

In conclusion, computers may be able to reshape a profession, but they cannot lead it into extinction.

Takamitsu Sawa is a distinguished professor at Shiga University.