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Is AI going to take away our jobs?

Are we going to lose our jobs to AI?

This article was first published as a part of the cover story in the January 2018 issue of Fast Track on Digit magazine. To read Digit’s articles first, subscribe here. You could also buy Digit’s previous issues here.

It’s 7 am, Monday and you wake up like clockwork. The good old alarm clock is pretty much the only thing that’s still analog in your house apart from you. As you get up to start preparing for office, the low hum of the automatic home-cleaner tells you that it’s in the last stage of its work cycle for today and will dock itself for charging soon. The cooking bot that you hired last month has prepared your meal, calibrated precisely for the nutrition you need based on your metabolism, and left for the day. Looking out of the window, you see the security drones patrolling your building more efficiently and diligently than any human security personnel ever could. The ease of everyday life since AI-powered bots and gadgets took over most of it brings a smile to your face as you bring up your email on the display in your living room. The first subject line you read makes you drop your cup in shock – they’ve fired you from your role at your workplace and replaced you with the latest automation software. Seems right out of a science fiction novel, or does it really?

With robot citizens coming into play, will humans even have any role in the future?

While it would be interesting to go in depth into which parts of the above fictional scenario are likely to become a part of our reality in the near future, a more important picture that it intends to paint is that AI is gradually taking over jobs around the world, and India is no different. Except where it actually is different – the kind of jobs at risk here. It is not news that AI and automation have caused and will cause job cuts, but the question we need to ask right now is, which jobs are at risk and what can we do about it? The answer, as it turns out, is neither easy nor pretty.

IT’s already happening

Knowing how to code has been one of the sure shot ways in India to get a job. India produces more engineers every year than the entire population of Bahrain. But if you ask any fresher in the IT and software industry, especially the ones working at firms that are known for mass recruitment, they will tell you that the average salary of a fresher hasn’t really gone up in the last 7-8 years. Ironically, 65 percent of the global IT work is off-shored to India, as is 40 percent of business processes. The reason behind the stagnating salary is the mostly stagnating level of work that gets outsourced to India – legacy work based on older software that is broken down to a granular level. That is exactly the kind of work that modern-day AI has been designed to automate – and it’s doing that quite well. Sadly, we don’t have the skill or a plan to deal with it.

Roles like testing are being automated in the IT industry by the dozen

While it is wrong to say that there’s going to be a doomsday-like scenario where everyone in IT loses their jobs overnight and is out on the streets, it’s not going to be a bed of roses either. Earlier, a growth of, say, 9 percent in the IT industry would correspond to a similar growth in recruitment. But right now, that number is more likely to hit 4 to 5 percent each year with most outsourced tasks like testing, customer service and more being automated. And it is not just purely software-based roles we are talking about here.

Take the example of Cisco’s Application Centric Infrastructure offering. The company built a ‘controller’ layer between the application and the infrastructure that can be coded with business policies. As and when required, this layer can instruct the infrastructure appropriately to ‘heal itself’, rendering well-paid middle-level infrastructure jobs like system administrators, database admins, network engineers useless or required only for manual intervention when all else fails. Overall, jobs are going to be fewer and quite specialised in IT in the coming years.

On the ground

And it’s not just about IT. According to a World Bank report, almost 70 percent of the Indian workforce will be irrelevant soon. This is likely to happen in sectors like manufacturing, agriculture, security services and logistics. So along with the large chunk of mid-level jobs, a segment of lower-rung jobs are also at risk.

Automation has been happening on the factory floor for a while now

India’s recent push towards manufacturing through the ‘Make in India’ movement has shown promise in terms of projects being undertaken in the country. But as anyone with a basic understanding of economics would tell you, that for a developing nation, a growing manufacturing sector generating equal growth in employment is crucial for that nation to eventually become a developed nation. In this case, that trend is gradually looking a bit precarious.

Going by data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, between 1997-98 and 2011-12, the percentage of people employed in the manufacturing sector has declined by two percent. And that trend is unlikely to go up considering the surge in robotics that is due. We are not talking about mere robots routinely doing the same job over and over again – that has been happening for quite a while. If you check out the warehouses of companies like Flipkart, DTDC, Delhivery and other big names in logistics, you’re likely to find a box-like machine with cameras installed on it, taking and placing packages in designated positions with hardly any human supervision required.

The Greyorange Butler

That’s a Butler, developed by Gurgaon-based Greyorange. Yes, it is doing something pretty basic in terms of reading a package number off a box using image recognition and matching it against one in a database, then judging the size of the box and using its arms to carry it accordingly. But remember, all we had in the name of robots a few years before were simple welders and robot arms. Fast forward to today, Honda’s factory in Vithalapur has the shop floor completely automated, with robots manufacturing components 24×7 with an efficiency greater than humans. It employs 14 people, whereas it would have employed 72 people without robots. And thanks to the cutthroat competition when it comes to manufacturing products, there’s not much option that the companies are left with.

And then there are other cutting-edge technologies that are converging with AI and bringing newer challenges to the employment scenario. While self-driving cars have been declared unfeasible for Indian roads, the same logistics scenario described earlier is being scaled to an entire industrial complex with dedicated roads for automated carts and carriers. Drones with AI capabilities can monitor crops for infestation, pests and create a scenario where fewer farm hands are needed. Stretching the capabilities of AI, virtually no job is safe. But that is not the end of the story.

AI-powered drones could automate agriculture to a large extent

New avenues

What we’ve been talking about so far is largely termed as Industry 4.0. In this, the role of a human is still present – but certainly not intact. So far, we’ve been in the driving position in most jobs, including the kind that we’ve undertaken in India. The new wave of jobs is bound to be created with rising automation require a more comprehensive expertise of the entire process being undertaken. Rather than telling a software what is to be done, we’ll be communicating with it based on what it requires from us to do its job. And just like its been said time and again, new jobs will be available. Jobs like:

  • Man-machine coordinator: With fewer lower-level employees, management level jobs will be transformed into coordination jobs between machines and human employees. This role would require the ability to combine the strengths of machines (analysis, diligence, speed etc) with that of humans (empathy, judgement, etc).
  • Data analysis: Yes, that does sound like something that computers have been doing for ages. We’re talking about the use case where something goes wrong and the logic on which the AI works itself makes a mistake, which might just need some human insight.
  • AI-Assisted Healthcare Technician: One of the many specialised roles in India today that could use AI help is that of a doctor. And with AI-assisted healthcare, someone with the basic medical know-how can provide healthcare in inaccessible places, with a doctor remotely available if needed
  • And more.

Bengaluru-based software giant Infosys has changed the way it trains its employees. Bringing in newer AI skills as part of the training for existing employees, the company hopes to be at the forefront of AI development without risking the jobs of its employees. For a large part, the Government needs to do something similar, as well as push Industrial reforms that promote industries that generate jobs. Along with that, the entire education system needs to focus on developing newer skills rather than producing run-of-the-mill software engineers. All of these do seem like quite ambitious tasks, but when more than 200 million people in the country are at the risk of losing their jobs, it is time for extreme measures.

Arnab Mukherjee

Arnab Mukherjee

A former tech-support desk jockey, you can find this individual delving deep into all things tech, fiction and food. Calling his sense of humour merely terrible would be a much better joke than what he usually makes.