“What do you do?”
Humans have been asking this question since the beginning of time. For some, it’s a moment of pride and an opportunity to list their achievements, and for some, it’s a dreadful question that haunts their life. For the rest, it doesn’t matter for they look towards it just as a mean of getting a sustainable life; they do or not is a different story altogether. And soon it wouldn't matter to you as well because you probably wouldn't have one.
A job or whatever it is that you do for a living is placed so high on ‘how to judge you chart’ that it determines your status in society. For instance, who would you choose as your President - a real estate (obnoxious) businessman with no experience in politics or a lawyer turned politician with two decades of an unprecedented sort of experience? I leave that for the Americans to decide, but what we need to pay attention to here, something that affects the whole world is our very beloved job industry, which is on the verge of crumbling down like a sand castle. And this is what our fourth industrial revolution will look like.
Are robots taking over our jobs?
And if getting a job wasn’t hard already, lo and behold, it gets harder.
According to a new World Bank research, automation threatens 69 per cent of the jobs in India, while 77 per cent in China in the coming 25 years and this number is high enough to fundamentally disrupt the pattern of traditional economic path in developing countries. In layman terms, this means that automation, which includes the use of machine learning and artificial intelligence, will eventually take over more than half of our jobs, and our job-centric society will have to find a way to cope with and through that.
Now, the world has already gone over a couple of industrial revolutions to realize that machines are in fact better at some tasks than humans. This was probably first realized around 200 years ago by the Luddites in Britain who then protested by smashing machines that made their weaving skills obsolete. Although every industrial revolution claims to bring more jobs than it destroys, experts have considerable evidence to believe that it decouples productivity and employment growth.
See for yourself, the evidence is present everywhere. From collecting tolls, monitoring health, flying a plane, transmitting messages to literally giving us directions, machines have been taught, or rather they have learnt how to accommodate between humans.
Manual jobs started disappearing years ago. Self-driving cars are nightmares to the driver community, Baxter robot threatens warehouse and labouring jobs while Hadrian X is a bricklaying expert. The high status cognitive jobs won’t escape this time either. ROSS, a legal version of IBM’s Watson was hailed as the first artificially intelligent lawyer; Google’s AlphaGo beat the world champion Lee Sedol in a 3,000-year-old Chinese board game with trillions of possible moves. AI has even outperformed humans in human surgeons in stitching up a pig.
Feeling incompetent, anyone?
So are we moving towards a workless future?
And all’s not good with that.
World Bank president Jim Kim argues, “As we continue to encourage more investment in infrastructure to promote growth, we also have to think about the kinds of infrastructure that countries will need in the economy of the future. We all know that technology has and will continue to fundamentally reshape the world. But the traditional economic path from increasing the productivity of agriculture to light manufacturing and then to full-scale industrialization may not be possible for all developing countries.”
History tells us that deranged by the chaos of colonization by Britain, India and China missed the first industrial revolution. Where China got all frenzied to catch up, India is still struggling. Countries like the UK and US drove these revolutions which made their economy grow, whereas those that could do nothing but look are now making pacts with the former to become like them.
And as the clouds of another industrial revolution approach us, the question remains if India is ready as a lot is at stake this time. Companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft are leading the research on artificial intelligence with not even one Indian IT company close enough. In the last industrial revolution Britain and Europe were able to export the job losses created by machinery to colonies such as India, and while they grew, India went through abject poverty. This time, when the disruption in economises is predicted to be as never before, will India be able to bear all those jobs loses with a balanced economy and sufficient economy growth? Will it be able to replace the old with the new? If yes, what is that new?
Where does this leave India?
A major disruption is expected to happen in US where 47% of US job are vulnerable to automation. Even if enough new jobs are created, they will be in countries driving the revolution. It goes without saying that India will take years, if not decades, to par with the US.
Ravi Venkatesan, chairman of Bank of Baroda raised some difficult questions talking about this issue in an article. He says that assuming every 5 jobs are created for every 10 jobs lost, current trends suggest two of these will be in the US, two in China and perhaps one in Europe. He then asks, “If this is true, do countries like India once again become colonies? Not of countries perhaps but of companies such as Google, Pfizer or Monsanto? Do we simply become markets for innovations developed elsewhere? Will the vast majority of our people then live on subsistence-wage service jobs? Is India doomed to remain a low-middle-income country?”
The only solution here is innovation. India has to grow stronger as not just a technology commercializer but also a technology creator. If India really tries, this could be the biggest opportunity for us, if not, we’re in big trouble.
Alas, who would have thought that it would come down from robots killing us to them taking over our jobs? What’s funny is that the possibility of the latter happening looks much scarier.