More robots, fewer jobs?

Lately we have been inept at creating new employment-generating sectors

Published - April 12, 2017 12:15 am IST

Human and robots to work together in the near future. This combination will accelerate developing technology. Businessman and cyborg organizes social media.

Human and robots to work together in the near future. This combination will accelerate developing technology. Businessman and cyborg organizes social media.

Our burgeoning young population is clearly struggling for jobs, despite being in the world’s fastest growing economy. More than 30% of Indians aged 15-29 are neither in employment nor in any training or education, according to a recent survey by the OECD. This added to the gloomy state of employment, for only in March the All India Council for Technical Education had said that more than 60% of the eight lakh engineers graduating from technical institutions across the country every year remain unemployed.

Bridging this employment gap could become an insurmountable challenge thanks to the growing integration of machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI)-based technologies and robotics in all our core industrial sectors.

Currently, various automation technologies are in the process of overhauling the mass employment-generating but low-skilled blue-collar labour markets. They could also threaten skilled white-collar workers. For instance, JP Morgan Chase and Co. recently developed a programme called COIN, a learning machine that interprets legal agreements in just a few seconds, a task that consumed 3,60,000 work hours for lawyers and loan officers annually. Similarly, an American medical school tested IBM’s AI technology Watson to analyse 1,000 cancer diagnoses. In 99% of the cases, Watson was able to recommend treatment plans that matched the suggestions of well-renowned oncologists. Suddenly, the World Economic Forum’s estimate that automation threatens almost 69% of the existing jobs in India seems like a conservative number.

Throughout history, we have always feared that machines will cause mass unemployment. “In every kind of endeavour, in office work as well as industry, in skilled labour as well as common tasks, machines are replacing men, and men are looking for work,” John F. Kennedy had said in 1960. However, this never happened as once old jobs became obsolete, new ones evolved. Machines decreased costs and prices, boosted demand, and created more employment opportunities. In India, for instance, as jobs started dwindling in farms, more productive sectors like manufacturing and services emerged.

Creating employment opportunities

However, lately we have been inept in creating new employment-generating sectors while machines are systematically cutting down the workforce requirements in the principal labour-generating triumvirate of agricultural, manufacturing and services sectors. This will be one of our foremost challenges. Even if we rise up to it, a majority of the jobs absorbing our labour requirements will be ones that do not currently exist. If most of our future jobs are expected to come from the services sector, it is also imperative to impart social and communication skills along with the requisite domain expertise to ensure the creation of a market-ready workforce. The success of the Modi government’s Skill India mission will turn out to be vital in the prevention of social inequalities that are bound to arise because of our current unemployment trajectory.

Anil K. Antony is the Executive Director of an Indo-American think tank in cybersecurity, intelligence and surveillance technology. Tweets @anilkantony

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