Can Robots Take Away Our Jobs? Here’s How Indian Employment Market Will Change with AI-driven Revolution

A new book, titled ‘Bridgital Nation: Solving Technology’s People Problem’, claims that 90 million individuals will join India’s working-age population between 2020 and 2030, which is “the single largest mass of people to come of working-age in any country that decade”. And if you thought this increasing competition at the job market (which is already in a bad condition) is a cause of concern, the authors of the book N Chandrasekaran (the chairman of Tata Sons) and Roopa Purushothaman (chief economist, Tata Sons) also point out that advancement of technology and the evolution of AI will also play a crucial role in determining the future of employment in India.

The evolution of AI has brought us to the precipice of a fourth industrial revolution, and with that the worrying question that is always asked when industrial revolutions are at the horizon, is obviously being asked: How will this affect our livelihoods? Will this revolution result in mass job losses?

While it is a very complex question and some social scientists, philosophers and industry experts present a gloomy picture of the future job market and suggest that the AI revolution can “disproportionately impact low-income workers”, the authors of Bridgital Nation propounds that while there will be job losses due to AI penetration, many jobs will be created too. Excerpts from Chandrasekaran and Purushothaman’s writing:

For decades, we have heard in general terms that robots are coming for jobs, for the future, and for all of us. As early as in 1964, a memo sent to the president of the United States envisioned a ‘cybernation revolution’ which would result in ‘a system of almost unlimited productive capacity’ that would replace human labour. Since then, the questions and concerns have become more specific. How will the advent of machines affect jobs? What jobs will be the first to go? What will it mean for the way we work, live and play? The conversation is accompanied by video footage that seems to confirm our worst fears: We see machines in a sterile warehouse sort packages before they are sent; we see the skeletal frame of a headless metal bot run, leap over obstacles, jog on snow, stagger but not fall after being pushed, and right itself if it falls over. We see more reliable models of ourselves.

The other view is more pragmatic. When new orders emerge, there are societal leaps in productivity, jobs, and living standards. Jobs will be lost, but others will be created. Over 120 years ago, even before the start of Ford’s automobile assembly line, it was evident that horse carriages were on their way out. ‘[The] time is coming when the vehicle drawn by horses will be the one to excite remark, and the present novelty will be a thing of ordinary use,’ a reader wrote to the New York Times in 1899. When costs fell and the market for ‘horseless carriages’ grew, new technologies and jobs emerged at fuel stations, repair shops, and automobile dealerships. History shows us that these economic and technology-led transitions inspire feelings of discomfort and uncertainty.

The authors point out that we lack imagination when it comes to perceiving future. We either see it in a terrifying completely automated version or as status quo. But, that is hardly ever the case. They write:

Now, as then, these views often look at a future without automation and a future with automation, not an in-between future where both coexist. Imagining where AI and automation, the main drivers of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, will end up is certainly an enticing and terrifying exercise. But what keeps governments and leaders awake at night is not its final form. It is what will come before that—the inevitable social, political and business costs that will only gradually become clear. They understand, deep in their bones, that this time truly is different. Automation in the past focused on repetitive tasks, done by hand and on foot. Now, tasks of cognition—thinking itself—are the objects of automation. But, as the physicist Michio Kaku says about general cognitive ability—common sense, by another name—even the most advanced robots and algorithms today have the intelligence of a cockroach. We have time. What we need is a new approach that views AI and automation as a human aid, not a replacement for human intervention. If we do this, automation in India will look nothing like it does anywhere else. We call this approach ‘Bridgital’. First, though, we have to understand India.

The authors also add that India will have to think about its problems in new ways because the old ideas have proven unsuccessful time and again and this new way of thinking should and must include AI but not at the cost of its vast human resources.

“In the twenty-first century, these new ways need to harness the power of artificial intelligence (AI), the cloud, machine learning and the Internet of Things (IoT), considering the rate at which they are expanding what is possible on a daily basis. The combination of these technologies can provide answers to problems that just a few years ago may have been considered intractable. However, the approach to technology requires careful consideration. It means not being distracted by the array of possibilities, or simply mimicking the innovations of others, but being razor-focused on what is needed. Not technology for technology’s sake, but technology in context—applied in ways that make sense to people, and that can help increase the yield of India’s existing human and physical resources.”

(The above excerpts from ‘Bridgital Nation: Solving Technology’s People Problem’ have been published with permission from Penguin Publishers, India. The book costs Rs 526.)

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