As we all know artificial intelligence (AI), which is behind the autonomous cars, facial recognition tools, chatbots, etc., has drawn lot of attention these days. Artificial Intelligence is a collection of technologies that enable machines to sense, comprehend, act, and learn on their own or by augmenting human activities. Human beings possess five basic senses namely Sight (vision), hearing (audition), taste (gustation), smell (olfaction) and touch (somatosensorial). As of now machines can do sight (image processing) & hearing/talking (natural language processing/generation) very well. This means machines can now recognize objects, navigate (a car), collaborate (translate languages), analyze data and recognize patterns (Detecting crop diseases).
In other words, AI is accelerating automation of residual manual processes which will ensure these processes being more accurate and faster. All these tasks which humans used to attend earlier with their primary human senses are being done by machines now with better accuracy, thereby improving customer satisfaction, team productivity and consequently profitability of the company.
Fear of replacement
Of late, as we all know, there is a lot of fear on the arrival of AI, with the expectation that it will replace humans. According to Babu Thiagarajan, Country General Manager and Head of Technology, Fidelity International, India says "There is merit in the statement that AI might replace humans in some jobs, but humans will always have the ability to adapt on their side in this competition. It is our "survival instinct" that is our edge over machines. As the environment around human changes, we will find ways to become better suited to the new environment. We have always done it, and we will continue to do it."
As he rightly said, instead of looking at AI as a source of worry, it's time to see it as a challenge and an opportunity to become better. In other words, let's focus on the immense potential that can be harnessed from this technology for human betterment, before it becomes a potential threat to human existence. For instance, these technologies can help the blind to navigate better, to identify cures that have proved elusive so far and so on. So nothing wrong in making use of these technologies for improving the lives of people.
However, there are concerns about the Fourth Industrial Revolution and widespread automation that might lead to job losses in countries such as India? For example, a paper by Frey and Rahbari (5) said India risks losing 69% of jobs to automation, while China risks losing 77%. However, researchers at the OECD (1) analyzed the Frey and Osborne study and based on their research concluded that automation was unlikely to destroy large numbers of jobs. A new research paper, released in July 2016, by researchers at the Centre for European Economic Research has indicated that technology has in fact had the opposite impact and is a net creator of jobs not destroyer. Further, the paper, Racing with or Against the Machine? Evidence from Europe by authors Terry Gregory, Anna Salomons, and Ulrich Zierahn found that fears of technological change destroying jobs may be overstated & concluded that labor has been racing with rather than against the machine in spite of these substitution effects.
But this is not to say that technology will not displace jobs. Though it does it, automation also increases productivity and lowers production costs, increasing demand in the economy. Further, it could also lead to new jobs. A study showed that in India, between 2004 and 2015, electrical trade workers had a significant share of new job titles such as computerized numerical control (CNC) operator, machining technician, CNC setter-cum-operator-vertical machining centre, CNC programmer, smartphone repair technician, solar panel installation technician, and optical fibre technician. And all these are new jobs.
What needs to be done?
An ILO (3) Employment Policy brief had pointed out that "the challenge of technical change may not be so much whether there will be more jobs destroyed than created, but the facility with which workers are able to transition from old to new jobs in a period of rapid change and to equitably share in productivity gains". The need of the hour is to upgrade skills. In this regard it's heartening to note that TCS, which used to recruit thousands of engineers, instead decided to trim down its recruitment and focus on reskilling their existing employees.
Let's not forget the fact that, rapidly changing technologies means workers have to learn new skills on a continuous basis. In other words, learn-unlearn and relearn has to be the practicing mantra. The rise in contract work will result in many being intermittently unemployed. And they need protection. But, unfortunately, India's social protection system is totally inadequate. The ILO says the population covered by any one social security scheme in India is 19%, compared to 63% in China, 28.4% in Bangladesh and 37.9% in Vietnam. We are already seeing the social consequences of the lack of decent jobs and rising inequality in India. So it's time we heed the warnings and take effective action for upskilling the people necessary action for in this regard, before it's too late.
In his 1995 book Jeremy Rifkin (4) stated that 'intelligent machines' were being 'hurried in to' work environments, thus ending work for people. It is 21 years since Rifkin made that claim, but we find that somehow human ingenuity marches on and continues to create more jobs and new industries. In other words, new technologies not only eliminate few jobs but also create demand for new capabilities and new jobs.
Having registered vast improvements as a society, why should we look at only the negative aspect of technological change, while ignoring the benefits that accompanied. I can only conclude by saying that studies by 'research scientists' which receive significant media attention lead to misrepresentation of the potential benefits and impacts of technology and create fears, sometimes as if it is a fait accompli, even if this is not the intention of the study authors.