Automation won't cost jobs, they said. They were wrong
41% of the executives surveyed at Indian firms expect a reduction in the number of employees thanks to advanced robotics.
It's Man vs Machine Redux, now playing at a shop floor near you. Sadly, the artificial intelligence-powered machines are winning that contest and unless you've been living under a rock, you'd know that it is not a close one by any stretch of the imagination. A recent report by Oxford Economics reckoned that the world could see 20 million manufacturing jobs replaced by robots by 2030. This, unfortunately, is not even the tip of the unemployment iceberg threatening to wreck the global economic growth titanic.
For decades, they told us that automation, computerisation, mechanisation, digitisation. all such wonderful things ending with an -ation would herald a sparkly bright future, an era of easy life for us humans where we would no longer have to worry about the mundane and the tiresome. They said machines would be at our beck and call, they'll do our chores - even anticipate our needs and wants and fulfil them before we even have to spell them out. Mind mapping or something like that.
And when that happens, we'd finally have the time for things that matter, things that we care about, like spending time with our friends and family or going for a jog; finer things in life like creating a new masterpiece or conjuring up a fresh recipe. That we'll have time for forgotten pleasures like visiting a museum or penning a handwritten note to someone we care about, and other such trivial pursuits that we can't find the time for. Now, that future is arriving as we speak, the trouble with it is the same (only magnified) with the earlier version of economic growth: it leads to income inequality, with the poorer, low-skill strata of society not having too many options (or bread) on the table.
The issue is that most people whose jobs get automated - in manufacturing facilities like car factories - tend to branch out either into services-led functions like office and admin work, or into other manual labour-intensive sectors like transport, construction, or maintenance. And these sectors remain as vulnerable to artificial intelligence as the factory floor, with robots quick to take on routine jobs with relative ease. With limited skill-sets, these displaced workers are not necessarily equipped for the white-collar greenfield jobs that automation promises to create. It's Economics 101 - more low-skilled workers are found in countries with relatively lower per capita income and higher unemployment rates, further accentuating the problem.
India, for instance, is facing a high unemployment rate (45-year-high). A recent survey (2019) carried out by Boston Consulting Group found that 41 per cent of the executives surveyed at Indian firms expect a reduction in the number of employees thanks to advanced robotics. And the impending Indian unemployment isn't the world's biggest headache either. It's China, where 67 per cent of executives see robotics-driven job-losses. Unemployment comes with its own set of socio-economic consequences, with a disgruntled and disenfranchised population tending to vote in governments that promise to reverse the globalisation process and secure jobs for them - not necessarily the perfect recipe for an economic boom.
Various experts have offered a range of solutions - from early warning and re/up-skilling of vulnerable workers to introducing fundamental flexibility in the way we educate tomorrow's youth to take on as-yet non-existent roles. The government encouraging and backing mass entrepreneurship is another path, something that countries like the UAE and Singapore have successfully charted, and that India is now embarking upon. My own two cents is that since robots are so intelligent, why not explore AI for solutions to this imminent crisis before it makes the global economy implode?