A couple of months ago, a new instalment to the Terminator franchise was shown in theatres worldwide. The sixth film in the series continues to explore a dystopian future where malevolent machines have taken over the Earth. In the films, a central, sentient machine intelligence called Skynet perceives the human race as a threat, triggering a nuclear holocaust in the process. Any remaining survivors are finished off or terminated using machines that look and act like humans — including (through the use of time travel) people in the past that could pose a threat to Skynet in the future.

Although the original film in the franchise was made in 1984, that film and succeeding films continue to fascinate and entertain people today. The films have especially become relevant and topical as advances in computing technology and the ability to aggregate and analyse massive amounts of data now allow us to create self-learning, autonomous software and machines. Whilst reality hasn’t quite caught up with the movies just yet, there is no doubt these technologies will change how people live and work in the future. Use cases are starting to emerge in various areas, and adoption has started to grow. In fact, analyst firm IDC predicts worldwide spending on cognitive and artificial intelligence (AI) systems will reach as much as US$77.6 billion by 2022, and Gartner predicts these systems will create as much as US$3.9 trillion in value by 2022.

In terms of adoption, the Asia-Pacific region is expected to come out ahead relative to other parts of the world and is expected to surge by 50 per cent from the previous year, reaching as much as US$6.2 billion in 2019. China leads the region in overall adoption, contributing as much as 71 per cent of overall spending. In China, AI plays a key role in the country’s master plan for economic development, with the government identifying it as a strategic area to help the country grow its economy and compete more effectively in higher-value products and services. This has triggered an arms race of sorts between the United States and China, as both countries try to exert their dominance in an emerging technology that many experts have said will have a long and lasting impact on humanity.

The implications are huge. As more and more companies adopt AI, what will be the impact for those countries and industries that fail to keep up? And for those that do keep up and embrace AI and machine learning wholeheartedly, what will the implications be for workers who may be displaced?

To answer those questions, it is useful to look at Southeast Asia. This area is a highly diverse region, made up of 11 countries of widely varying cultures, languages and stages of economic development. In the region are highly developed countries such as Singapore, with a high gross domestic product (GDP), high per capita income, high labour productivity and relatively high readiness for the coming wave of AI adoption. Also in the region are developing countries such as Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines which, according to research by McKinsey, are potentially threatened by AI. As much as half of the work activities being performed in these economies has the potential to be automated — putting at risk as much as US$900 billion in wages.

In labour-intensive, blue-collar jobs, such as those in manufacturing, workers have already been grappling for several decades with the possibility of being displaced by automation. But now, with developments in AI, even white-collar jobs in healthcare, banking and back-office/administrative services are not immune. In the Philippines, for example, where the business process outsourcing (BPO) industry constitutes a substantial share of the economy, employing over a million workers who are doing things such as customer support and sales, the threat of displacement by intelligent, automated software such as chatbots is very real and immediate.

But done right, AI does hold a lot of promise for these economies. The adoption of AI has been shown to dramatically improve the productivity and profitability of companies employing it. In fields such as healthcare, doctors are using AI to improve patient diagnoses and optimize hospital operations such as staffing. In retail, some companies are using AI to dramatically improve their competitiveness and improve the customer experience. In banking and finance, AI does not just help improve efficiency and protect against fraud, but it also lowers the barriers to accessing financial services and paves the way for financial inclusion, especially in a region that needs it, where more than seven out of 10 adults in Southeast Asia are underbanked.

Countries in Southeast Asia would do well to follow the examples of China and Singapore and prepare for the inevitable wide-scale adoption of AI. Formulating a strategy, policies and framework for adoption that is led or supported by the government — such as what the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand have recently done — would be a good first step. Making sure that plans exist to upskill or retrain talent is another. Companies should also see AI as a way to augment, rather than replace, their workforce, creating opportunities that will allow their workers to do things that humans are better at than machines: tasks that require higher-level reasoning, empathy and creativity.

If countries and industries prepare now, then a bleak future where machines and AI dominate humans, as shown in the Terminator movies, can be avoided. In its place perhaps a utopian future where machines serve or complement humans, as shown in the Star Wars or Star Trek movies, will come true instead.