Information technology and artificial intelligence
are disrupting the job market across the world on a scale that seems
unstoppable. Every economy, major or minor, is or will be affected, in
different ways and to different degrees. But it will almost certainly shrink
the work force, and not just in the unskilled sectors.
The logic of automation is fewer workers per unit of output irrespective of everything else. So steel, construction and mining, for example, have seen drastic reductions in labour use even as productivity keeps rising. Now, however, policy makers face a task different in kind. Fears that smart machines will take over more and more of the economy, rendering humans irrelevant are more than paranoia.
Everyone admits it, but the gung ho gang present it as a Darwinian inevitability that need cause no worry, as every time technology closes a door another pops open. Gloomier prophets see the future as a variant of Sisyphean labour, an infinity of anxiety, adjustment and learning anew until we cease to be.
We cannot be certain what shape the future will take, but in some ways it is with us. Automation shows the number of workers always falls, nowhere truer than in agriculture in rich countries, where the workforce declines of over 80 per cent from a century ago still led to many times the output. Artificial intelligence, however, is more than automation on steroids. The difference is in orders of magnitude.
When Walmart spread its tentacles across America there was an outpouring of anger, anguish and hand-wringing at the loss of high streets and retail business in small towns. But no one seems even to have noticed Jeff Bezos’ Amazon or Jack Ma’s Alibaba closing in on Walmart or taking over entire swathes of the retail sector wherever they operate. They are probably just getting started, because the AI systems they run on are beginning to mature at accelerating rates. It is anybody’s guess how many thousands of positions for checkout clerks, store assistants, stackers and handlers will go unfilled because Amazon takes care of it all. The next 10 years will tell us if Walmart and its clones are also doomed to fall in the march of the machines.
Wherever we look artificial intelligence lurks at the horizon. Its programs have made mincemeat of travel operators and agents, and the millions of people driving cabs for rideshare companies must be nervous about a future of driverless cars. They may have to look for another job in a few years because all the major car makers and Google, Uber, Tesla and others unknown are feverishly at work on a model that passes the roadworthiness test. If this works, commercial vehicles will follow, forcing untold more millions into the cold.
Online libraries and book stores are killing the brick and mortar competition. There is no sign of the lending libraries that were so ubiquitous in every Indian city and book stores everywhere are shutting down because they cannot match online prices. Artificial intelligence has already moved into the legal system. AI software has due diligence and research facilities as well as programs that predict litigation outcomes. As for banking, AI spans a range from customer assistance to complex investment advice programs. Robotics in healthcare is transforming complex and risky invasive surgery into routine, everyday procedures. At the moment the human is still the boss but it is at least conceivable that machines will take the key decisions in future while the human provides “technical assistance”.
A December 2017 report by the McKinsey Global Institute blithely assures us that AI trends need not “‘conjure gloom-and-doom scenarios about the future of work’, so long as governments rise to the challenge of equipping workers ‘with the right skills’ to prepare them for future market needs.” But that is precisely the problem. Germany is perhaps the one country that has a comprehensive lifelong retraining programme for workers. Does even a patriotic Indian feel he’ll be all right because the government has his back? Most states are not equipped to find even one job for their workers, and here we are talking about a world where we jump from job to job until we die.
Unfortunately, no one knows how to deal with it, as fiscal policy adjustments are unlikely to work in an emerging economy where the basis of decision making will undergo profound changes. This a new turn in the industrial revolution whose direction we cannot predict. All we can do is hope the riptides will not wash us away.