The Age of Disruption and The Future of Jobs

by Amitabh Kant

The ancient Chinese game GO, which has a very high number of possible moves, was considered almost impossible for a computer to beat humans two years ago. Last year when Alpha GO (a GO program designed by two GO players) beat the best human professional GO Player Lee Sedol in a five game match, by learning from millions of games, it became clear that machine learning has breached even the bastion of strategic thought. Impossible Foods a fourth industrial revolution technology company makes a plant based food that smells, tastes, looks like real meat. It threatens the future of $ 90 billion meat industry. If only 20 % of the world’s population switches from eating real meat to alternative proteins it would free up 12 % of total fresh water, free 400 million hectares of land and 960 megatons of CO2 emission. Both traditional manufacturing and service oriented industries are being disrupted in a manner we have never seen before.

We are in the midst of the fourth wave of technological advancement - the phenomenal use of new digital industrial technologies known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The word revolution implies abrupt and radical change. The first industrial revolution spanned around mid 1700 to 1840 triggered by the invention of the steam engine which led to mechanical production. The second industrial revolution made mass production feasible and was catalysed by the discovery of electricity and assembly line. This began in late 19th Century and continued till early 20th Century. The third industrial revolution began in the 1960’s and was driven by computers, digital technology and the internet. The fourth industrial revolution is being driven by ten technologies that are transforming industrial  production. These are: autonomous Robots; simulation; big data and analytics; augmented reality; the cloud; cyber-security; additive manufacturing; horizontal and vertical integration; the internet of things and artificial intelligence. These technologies are impacting the entire production value chain from design to productivity, speed and quality of production.

There is widespread concern on the potential impact of the fourth industrial revolution on employment. A vast range of jobs are at risk of extinction and rapid scaling could lead to accumulation of job losses. The other fear is that new technologies would lead to increase in inequalities and lack of social cohesion. Elon Musk has stated that artificial intelligence represents an essential threat to humanity and has suggested tight regulations. Bill Gates has stated that Robots need to be taxed to compensate for greater efficiency compared to humans and suggested that the pace of automation should be slowed down.

McKinsey Global Institutes; report, “Jobs Lost, Jobs Gained: Workforce Transitions in A Time of Automation” estimates that between 400 million and 800 million people around the globe could be displaced by automation and will need to find new job by 2030. While new jobs will be available people will require new skills to find new jobs. There will be considerable need for re-skilling and training.

Let us look at what new technologies could do to enable India to technologically leapfrog. The two indicators holding India back in Ease of Doing Business are enforcement of contracts where India is 164 out of 190 countries and registering property where India is 154 out of 190. They account for India’s overall poor ranking and have acted as a major barrier for investors to India. About 3 crore cases are currently pending in various courts of India. These include 44.5 lakh cases in High Courts and 2.6 crore lower court cases. Two-thirds of all civil cases in district courts relate to registering land. Blockchain-based smart contracts could radically reduce litigation, bring transparency in land registry and eliminate corruption relating to land. India has a billion biometrics on Aadhaar. We have a unique opportunity to leverage our public identities to have many applications on a blockchain network.

According to a PwC report, Artificial Intelligence will contribute as much as 15.7 trillion to the world economy by 2030. This is more than combined output of China and India. Given India’s strength in technology, favourable demographics and structural advantages in availability of advanced data India can be a pioneer in the field of AI. Artificial Intelligence has the potential to add US $ 957 billion or 15 percent of current gross value added to India’s economy by 2035 (Accenture Report) India’s data diversity is a big draw for global AI implementers as data is the fuel that powers current generation AI algorithms utilising deep learning. Artificial Intelligence can be a game changer in government where “Scale” and “Quality” need to be addressed simultaneously.

Robots and Artificial Intelligence together can double productivity every four years compared to 10 years that humans take working on their own. Even simple Robots are increasing productivity by 15-20% in China. Foxconn has replaced 60,000 workers in factories with Robots. Robotics industry spending is set to exceed $135 billion in 2019, nearly double its 2015 figure. Robots would increase productivity, decrease costs and relieve humans from difficult and discomforting jobs.

What does India need to do to embrace technology, create new jobs and meet the requirements of the changed scenario?

Firstly, we must realign India’s education system to emphasise skills rather than mere degrees. We must move away from the anglo-saxon system of education with emphasis on academic degrees to hands on learning in practical subjects. A beginning has already been made by Atal Innovation Mission. By 2018 end, nearly 2000 schools will have Tinkering Labs with robots, 3D printers, additive machinery, Internet of things and mentors so that children from class VI onwards can build and experiment rather than only imbibe. It is the first program of this size and scale globally which aims to change the fundamentals of our education system to better enable our society to work in the future.

Secondly, we must constantly upgrade skills for newer and higher paid jobs. There is a severe shortage of skilled manpower. India needs massive upgradation programmes in new technologies. Our IIT’S and IIIT’s must redefine themselves as institutes driving cutting edge technologies for the fourth industrial revolution.

Thirdly, we must create a highly flexible, resilient and adaptive workforce which is multi skilled and has the capacity to undertake digital tasks from anywhere rather than a fixed location.

Fourthly, we must initiate measures to ensure that India’s citizens and its workforce are fully prepared to embrace the new era of AI, blockchain, additive manufacturing and emerging technologies. India cannot afford to bypass this revolution. This requires a new mindset. Our policies must drive this change.

Fifthly, we must work across disciplines and institutional boundaries. We must break silos. Medical data is an example. Life saving opportunities can be utilised by sharing large set of genomic data across different health providers and research organizations.

Sixthly, our focus must be on social sector – education, health, nutrition where new technologies will enable us to leapfrog, improve the quality of life and enhance our human development index. These are also the sectors where maximum jobs will be created.

Countries are still navigating the early stages of transformation of this new industrial revolution. Can India jumpstart this transformation?

Author is CEO, NITI Aayog. The views expressed are personal.

This article was originally published in ‘The Times Of India’ on 22 February, 2018, and has been reproduced with permission from the author.