The Death of Employment?

By Rajesh Raheja

Machine intelligence and autonomy have received a fair share of space and time in the media in 2015. There have been no less than 30 articles in the Economic Times of India and the Financial Times of the UK combined, not to mention many more in the other leading international dailies. The leading bookstores too are keeping pace. In the past few weeks a number of books on autonomous machines have taken prime space on shelves reserved for merchandising new releases. At least three of these – ‘Machines of Loving Grace’, ‘Rise of the Robots’ and ‘Our Robots, Ourselves’ – have been the focus of review in a recent issue of the reputable ‘Nature’ magazine. This surge in literature cannot be termed as a profligate expenditure of time and ink. There is a genuine attempt to fathom the imminent impact of robotic revolution on the demand for human workforce in the future workplace.

A number of economists and sociologists believe that employers’ increasing preference for one time capital investment in an ‘intelligent’ machine over monthly periodic payouts in wages and salaries will lead to the demise of a number of jobs currently performed by humans. The unfolding scenario offers enough evidence that humans will be sharing space and time with machines that have – what John Markoff calls – ‘amplified intelligence’. And this will happen in near future. The promise of productivity gains through employment of efficient and undemanding autonomous agents is real.

The nerve centre of the autonomous behaviour in a machine – or ‘robot’ in popular parlance – is contrived with artificial intelligence (AI). AI is an eclectic discipline; a convergence point for computer science and cognitive science. After a series of missteps in the last century the exponents of AI are showing a renewed purposefulness and pragmatism, albeit the effort now spans a broad spectrum; with passable machine intelligence on one end and preternatural ‘singularity’ on the other. While the latter remains a holy grail, there is no denying that the algorithms have come of age, and self-governance exhibited by the machine – as it flies, walks, talks, suggests, decides and performs – is not an off-kilter spectacle. There is a sure-footed advance towards creating the armature for fabricating digital gray matter – an essential factor for the enterprise of robotics.

Policy makers in India should take note of the developments in automation because it is a phenomenon that exhibits the properties of – what Joshua Cooper Ramo terms as – “irreducible unknowns”; phenomena capable of swift diffusion, and potent enough to test the resilience of the system, which, in this particular context, comprise of the semi-skilled and unskilled workforce in the organised and unorganised labour market of the country with 1.25 billion population. It is imperative that, in view of this imminent technological “perplexity”, India’s policy makers should make a genuine effort in developing scenarios focused on real-wage and structural unemployment when the purchase of industrial and domestic robots becomes as commonplace as purchase of desktops and mobile devices. Philip Van Notten defines scenarios as “consistent and coherent descriptions of alternative hypothetical futures that reflect different perspectives on past, present, and future developments, which can serve as a basis for action.” In light of this definition, an argument, that plethoric availability of cheap workforce in India is a robust deterrent against large scale automation, is untenable.

Historically, the manufacturing sector has been the biggest employer of robots since the intelligent ‘electromechanical muscles’ made their commercial debut. In his article ‘Made by Robots’ published recently in the Indian daily ‘Business Standard’, Subir Gokarn has highlighted that robot penetration in India trails China significantly. He attributes this to the combination of a relatively small size of manufacturing sector in India, and to the structural shift in China, i.e. disappearance of the country’s low wage advantage. However data indicates that industrial robot sector is in a healthy growth phase all over the world, and India is not insulated from penetration.

The current Indian government has two notable missions: ‘Make in India’ and ‘Skill India’. The former is driven by the premise that manufacturing is the bedrock of economic development, and if MNCs are offered a market friendly environment, India’s demographic dividend will attract FDI. The latter takes a serious view on development of human capital to meet the needs of the potential employers, and increase employability quotient of the workforce. Prima facie these are sound directions, but only if their outcome assessed for sustainability in light of the advancing automation. Cost efficiencies are already an integral ingredient of contemporary MNCs growth strategy. In a fast evolving socio-legal environment, in which decent living wages and wholesome working conditions impinge on costs, captains – across industries – will realise that intelligent machines fulfil the organisational needs for minimum cost, maximum quality, and productivity without fuss.

Technology is the driver of economic growth. While it is an augmenter of individual and collective productivity, many of its strains have the potential to become an integrant part of individual lifestyle. Henry Ford drove the automobile into the mass market and its influence on labour market was almost instant. Hitherto, the four-wheeler has been a job generator. In recent years, particularly post-recession, many – including the well-educated – have taken up the role of transporting other people as their second vocation. But now the longevity of this vocation is under threat. Google is completing the transformation of the conventional subservient hatchback into the self-driving robot. Apple will follow soon. Once the self driving vehicle technology is packaged for mass market, the scenario will start unfolding. This has serious implications, particularly for the segment of the workforce whose sole skill is driving, and the only means of monetising this skill is by transporting other people. Cab-drivers and private chauffeurs – the ubiquitous workers in any economy – will be at the receiving end of this structural shift. To argue that India’s driving conditions are safeguards against this type of automation is not an alternative to long term scenario building; a sagacious planner would rather look beyond this factor.

Now evaluate the employment potential offered by the contemporary urban middle income Indian households to the ones who populate the lower income strata of society. An urban household that sustains itself on a daily basis without employing a full-time or part-time domestic help – whose services include dishwashing and mopping etc. – is a rarity. Indian households, therefore, make a significant contribution to the Indian economy as employers of unskilled, unorganised workforce. Now envisage a scenario, in, say 2025: the year in which the big four Indian metros join the list of 25 most populated cities in the world; a domestic help’s minimum statutory salary exceeds Rs. 10000 per month; ‘Roomba’, the self-governing domestic vacuum cleaner is available off-the-shelf at an affordable price, à la washing machine; and the Internet-of-Things (IoT) pervades everyday life. In these circumstances what could stop an urban household from evaluating the trade-off between, one time expenditure required to ‘employ’ the intelligent, non-whimsical Roomba, and the monthly payout plus benefits to the house maid? Once the number of households that perceive more value in the former crosses the critical mass, the decimation of household work as a job will only accelerate. The loss of one income in many of the low-income social strata will become a sad reality. Similar fate awaits the service sector when fast food sector employs robotic waiters to serve, and drones to deliver food. Once automation crosses the threshold – both, vertically and horizontally – then the relative ineffectuality of human capabilities and skills will be exposed, redundancies will accelerate and conditions for social unrest may emerge. Ignoring this scenario as a figment of idle doomsayers is fraught with risk.

Rajesh Raheja, the European Union CMA Branch President is a freelance writer based in Cambridge, UK