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.