Can Artificial Intelligence Solve China's Demographic Crisis?

Shanghai at night
Shanghai at night
Huang Kuangshi*

BEIJING — Over the past decade or so, "The Low-Fertility Trap," a hypothesis put forth by Wolfgang Lutz, Vegard Skirbekk and Maria Rita Testa, respectively Austrian, Norwegian and Italian scholars, has worried many countries facing the risks of an aging population. This includes China. The theory suggests that when a country's birth rate is lower than 1.5, three self-reinforcing mechanisms — demographic, sociological and economic — can work, if unchecked, towards a downward spiral in its future fertility.

Yet, while people are still debating whether China is up against doomed demographics, a few have noticed that artificial intelligence (AI) is creating an ever faster, more disruptive and stronger force than that of the industrial revolution — and could completely overturn China's demographic outlook.

Industrialization and low birth rates are two sides of the same coin. For a long time, people have thought that modernization is what alters people's concept of birth, rather than more specifically, industrialization.

It was industrialization that pushed forward improvements in labor productivity while reducing the demand for workers. And coupled with information technology and AI, robots are now quietly replacing humans, as people's reproductive choices are also being subtly and fundamentally transformed.

Only a few years ago people were arguing that a shortage of labor in the Pearl River Delta and Yangzte River Delta, the two most developed economic zones of China, would push up wages. Yet, even before the workers have had a say, the robots have taken their place and a robotic revolution is underway.

In 2014, Dongguan, a manufacturing hub in the Pearl River Delta, introduced its plan to speed up the strategy of "replacing humans with robots' by 2025. Since then, this wave of "machines substituting humans' has washed across the whole country.

If one goes back to the Pearl River Delta to do business research today, one will find that almost without exception all manufacturers are currently operating with robots. The automation is beyond people's imagination. In 2016, CCTV's New Year Gala even came up with a particularly impressive show in which the dancers were 540 robots.

Express delivery is probably the sector where the public feels most obviously the power of robots taking the place of humans.

Only a few years back, a lot of countries were still laughing that China's rapid development of its logistics industry was counting on its cheap labor. In recent years, multi-function robots with transporting, palletizing and sorting capabilities have mushroomed throughout its logistics industry.

AI is an irreversible trend

Delivery-end robots are also increasingly taking over work that used to be handled by men, such as smart robots that can avoid barriers and deliver parcels to recipients, or intelligent robots that can carry a weight up to 50 kilograms at a speed of two meters per second while being capable of rapidly locating the merchandise's position, and then automatically delivering it to the packing station following an optimal route. This is not to forget the unmanned express vehicles using electric-power or solar technology.

From manufacturing to the service industries, little-by-little robots are approaching the daily activities of human beings. In brief, AI is an irreversible trend. As some have predicted, when robots are fully applied, China will cut more than 240 million jobs. According to the UN's forecast, two-thirds of the labor force in the developing world will be replaced by robots.

If this does happen, does China still need to worry about "The Low-Fertility Trap"?

According to World Health Organisation statistics, one out of every seven couples on the planet suffers from reproductive problems. In China, one out of every ten couples suffers from infertility, and the incidence rate rising.

People have long relied on assisted reproductive technology to solve infertility problems, which basically means help in conceiving with artificial insemination or in-vitro fertilization (IVF) — embryo transfer as well as its derived technology.

Now AI is being introduced into these practices to further boost the success rate. With the help of AI, scientists can better predict which embryos will develop. In addition, when AI figures out which embryos have eventually resulted in babies, it will recognize good-quality embryos by self-learning. In other words, AI will be more stable and reliable than the embryologists and will boost the chances of those who can't conceive naturally.

On a somewhat more extreme front, the era of sex robots might affect population numbers. Not only does a sex robot promise to satisfy a human libido, some say it can know a human better than other humans. Through a variety of algorithms and deep learning, the perfect combination of body-and-soul sex robots can fully demonstrate the potential of becoming a human being's perfect companion.

Recently married Chinese couple in Shijiazhuan, China — Photo: Jia Minjie/ZUMA

In the book – Love And Sex with Robots, Dr David Levy, a British chess master, as well as the founder of computer Olympiads, claims that thanks to rapid advances in stem cell research and man-made chromosomes it's not far off that "half-breeds' will soon be born. Intelligent sex doll creator Sergi Santos even predicts that humans will eventually start to marry sex robots, and give birth to their offspring. In the AI era, these seemingly distant ideas may come to pass sooner than we think.

Being able to monitor and analyze in real-time the entire demographic issue.

The vision also foresees that AI can overcome traditional demographic challenges through the development of the so-called "smart population," based on AI, that will solve all population-related problems. This is derived from the "smart city" or "urban brain" where the public AI system can analyze the situation of the surroundings in real-time, automatically deploying public resources, fixing the bugs in the city's ongoing operations and guiding the infrastructure plans for the future.

It is a system that includes both the internal data of the population's births, deaths, migration, size, structure and distribution and the external system related to economy, society, environment, energies and resources.

A smart population can monitor and analyze in real time the whole demographic issue, solve automatically the problems of population degeneration, aging, overpopulation in urban areas, unbalanced distribution of population and poverty. By fixing the varied bugs of an unbalanced demographic development, it will become the infrastructure of a sustainable population.

For instance, when a city's population is in decline, it will send out messages to encourage population increases. When births are needed, signals will spread that will lead to more male-female coupling, particularly to women of childbearing age. In this sense, a "smart population" would seamlessly and automatically interpret long-term family planning policy.

In July, China's State Council issued a circular stipulating the country's new-generation AI development plan that aims for China to become a main AI innovation hub globally.

Will Artificial Intelligence prove to be the new cradle or final grave of human development? Either way, AI's role in disrupting traditional models of demography may turn out to be central to answering that question.

*Huang Kuangshi is an Associate Researcher of the China Population and Development Institute at National Population and Family Planning Commission.

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

— Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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