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Threat From Robots Turning Out To Be More Real Than Ever

Robotic hand using a laptop computer, illustration.

By K Raveendran

India’s IT boom was never an accident. It wasn’t planned either. It just happened; more importantly, despite the government. This does not mean our government in particular was anti-technology. In fact, that is the case with all countries where the IT revolution took hold. IT development was the product of an ecosystem in which governments had very little role to play. And it is good that they didn’t force one. For, whenever the governments intervened, it was aimed at controlling. Mercifully, the attempt to exercise control has come only after technology came into its own.

Rewind to the early stages of computerisation and the eighties saw concerted action by political parties, trade unions and service sector organisations against the introduction of computers on the perceived fear of labour displacement. This was the most retrograde approach on the part of organised classes of workers and employees and was destined to fail as the world outside was embracing big changes and profiting from them. Finally, before the turn of the new millennium, the much-hyped up Y2K issue and the uncertainty over the date change in computer programs, designed to accommodate only dates up to 2000, created a bonanza for Indians in job opportunities. Although the Y2K related work involved only low-level skills, Indian software engineers and the industry managed to create a new world of opportunities, which placed India as the top software power in a new emerging world order.

Although the benefits of computerisation was a big embarrassment and lost opportunity for state governments such as Kerala, which made opposition to computers a part of its state policy, the advances in information technology changed everyone’s life, including that of the antagonists. Thus, opposition to computers died a natural death. Today we know how almost every Indian carries some kind of a computer, whether in the form of a mobile phone or more sophisticated devices, on his or her person and how it is helping governments to improve governance standards and administrations to work more efficiently.

It seems that the cycle has done its course and is ready to start constructing a new one. The evolution of artificial intelligence and robotics is reigniting the controversy and apparently the new round is more complicated and delicately balanced not just for the uninitiated but the experts as well. And more significantly, it is taking the world into an uncharted new direction. The challenge is even more formidable that the twin areas are moving from the realm of ‘permissive, tech-loving and science-driven elite’ to the wider world, with its implications for our daily life, work and whatever we do. The issues under discussion range from the fear of artificial intelligence relegating human mind to the second position, which by all means look unlikely, to the tyranny of robots which might create monstrous devices that can imperil human life. More importantly, the job displacement threat is much more serious than the computerisation of the eighties, which our organised classes were vehemently opposed to.

According to a PriceWaterhouse Cooper report, millions of workers around the world are at risk of losing their jobs to robots and the worst victims may be the Americans as 38 percent of US jobs are at the risk of being replaced by robots and artificial intelligence over the next 15 years. Certain jobs, such as financial services, are particularly under threat. With a population of 1.25 billion, whatever happens to artificial intelligence and robotics has huge implications for India, the estimates of which are not yet available.

There are also ethical issues, the ambiguities on which remain as vast as the potential of artificial intelligence. And the lack of clarity was recently dramatised by an interaction between Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg and Tesla chief Elon Musk, which almost erupted into an unseemly fight between two people who have shaped the world of the new millennium through their most disruptive thinking. Musk has been a vocal critic of artificial intelligence and the dangers it poses and his most sensational description of the new phenomenon being that it is more dangerous than North Korea. In a Facebook Live session recently, Zuckerberg blasted those who spread fears of doomsday scenarios about artificial Intelligence, his obvious target being Musk, who then retorted that Zuckerberg’s “understanding of the subject is pretty limited”.

Apart from the danger of artificial intelligence creating ‘autonomous weapons’ more dangerous than what North Korea has access to, as Musk fears, an immediate worry for the billions of workers around the world is the threat to their jobs.

According to McKinsey, the debate on automation technologies and their role in everyday life and workplace tends toward a Manichean guessing game: which jobs will or won’t be replaced by machines? But the agency says the story is more nuanced. While automation will eliminate very few occupations entirely in the next decade, it will affect portions of almost all jobs to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the type of work they entail. Automation, now going beyond routine manufacturing activities, has the potential, as least with regard to its technical feasibility, to transform sectors such as healthcare and finance, which involve a substantial share of knowledge work, McKinsey says citing research findings so far.

It had said in a presentation last year that currently demonstrated technologies could automate 45 percent of the activities people are paid to perform and that about 60 percent of all occupations could see 30 percent or more of their constituent activities automated, again with technologies available as of then. One finding that is particularly relevant to India relates to the skill levels of the labour and their demand supply situation. If workers are in abundant supply and significantly less expensive than automation, this could be a decisive argument against automation technologies, it says, although issues like higher levels of output, better quality, and fewer errors are considered important determinants.

One thing is certain: artificial intelligence has much wider ramifications than the computerisation of the previous decades, which by itself was a thorny issue for India’s policy planners and administrators. (IPA Service)

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