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Some Loss, Some Gain

Growing automation across industries will eat up some lowskilled jobs, but will also create new jobs

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Job loss is a sensitive subject in India as the country continues to struggle with unemployment. As per Labour Bureau estimates, the unemployment rate in the country in 2015-16 shot up to a five-year high of 5 per cent. To make matters worse, deeper penetration of automation across business functions is making several jobs redundant. According to IT research firm Zinnov, automation will become mainstream in 2017 and grow significantly over the next four years.

As a consequnce, India will lose 28 per cent or 6.4 lakh low-skilled jobs to automation by 2021, according to a recent study by US-based HfS Research. A large number of non-customer-facing, low-skilled work related to back office processing and IT support are likely to be automated and consolidated. A perfect case of man versus machine.

Technological Unemployment

Losing jobs to automation is nothing but “technological unemployment”, a term that refers to job loss caused by a technological change, brought about either by the introduction of a labour-saving machine or a more efficient and intelligent process.

[24]7, which has transformed itself from a pure-play business process outsourcing unit to a platforms and products company, engages in 1.5 billion conversations annually, most of which are automated.

Shanmugam Nagarajan (popularly known as Nags), co-founder and chief people officer at [24]7, says there aresome areas in his industry that are likely to take a hit, with automation coming in a big way. “With self-diagnosis coming in, traditional tech support could be hit. With the new ability to monitor devices remotely, traditional remote infrastructure services (RIM) management could take a beating, along with simple look-ups like checking balance on your bank account or looking up on your pending bill amount,” he says.

Nags, however, clarifies that automation can only replace the intelligence quotient (IQ) part of a job, not the emotional quotient (EQ) aspect of it. The more complex areas will continue to need a human element.

According to B. V. R. Mohan Reddy, founder and executive chairman, Cyient, some sections of jobs will be impacted, but not necessarily eliminated. He says, “We should also consider that new jobs will be created because of new technologies coming into play. Hence, net job losses may be minimal. It will be more of job roles changing than a large section of people losing jobs.”

India’s second largest software exporter Infosys has been betting big on automation and artificial intelligence (AI) since Vishal Sikka took over as the managing director and CEO of the company. However, Sikka believes AI and automation will not lead to human obsolescence or elimination of jobs.

“AI, like all great technologies and tools that have come before it, can, and should amplify people’s potential — enabling us to focus on the creative and the imaginative work. The driverless trucks do things we humans simply cannot do, e.g. ‘platooning’; we don’t have the mechanical precision or the reflexes to do it; we do, however, have the imagination and the knowledge to build the software and systems for driverless trucks, and to govern their safe operation. Technology can, and must be the great amplifier of our human potential, our humanity. It is why we focus on education and learning; it is why we participate in OpenAI and other initiatives to develop and advance AI openly, to help bring its benefits to all of us,” Sikka said in a letter to company shareholders.

Technological breakthroughs, such as IBM’s Watson, certainly have the potential to render many jobs obsolete. Watson is a cognitive technology that can think like a human. It can analyse and interpret all types of data, including unstructured, and provide personalised recommendations by understanding a user’s personality, tone, and emotion. However, IBM too believes it is not about replacing people. “It is about augmenting what man does…this helps us do things we couldn’t do,” says IBM’s chief executive Gini Rometty.

What Lies Ahead
So, what’s the future? Automation, which is now in its nascent stage, is set to grow big and cut across all industry verticals. For instance, low-skilled tasks such as data entry into workflow processes, data extraction from standard databases, and routine decision-making processes will inevitably be automated. Even high-complexity jobs that require human judgement will also be automated to a certain extent, and “intelligent automation” will become the new normal going forward, says Praveen Bhadada, partner and practice head, Zinnov. “As business processes shift towards intelligent automation, companies will gear up to find a balance between virtual and human workers to offer integrated process delivery. We will see workforce involvement reducing in standard tasks, and getting utilised for processes that increasingly require human judgement,” he adds.

Expectedly, workers will be displaced. According to HfS estimates, globally, low-skilled routine jobs will likely reduce by 30 per cent, as many of these roles will go to digital labour over the next five years, resulting in a net loss of 9 per cent of jobs, totaling a global workforce reduction of 1.4 million positions. But the displaced workforce will be utilised for more value-added tasks involving human judgment. “The coming together of automation and digital technologies such as AI, machine learning, and Internet of Things (IoT) will further create net new jobs in the ecosystem,” says Bhadada.

The prediction about creation of new jobs has been corroborated by HfS Research; it forecasts strong growth for high-skilled and medium-skilled personnel — with highly-skilled positions in the services industry increasing by 56 per cent and medium-skilled by 8 per cent by 2021.

As intimidating as it sounds, a few years down the line, technologies such as automation and AI will indeed replace several low-skilled jobs, now performed by humans. In order to stay relevant, the workforce will have to focus on re-skilling and up-skilling talent on a continuous basis. That said, elements of human behaviour such as intuition, judgement, creativity, innovation, compassion, and imagination are irreplaceable. Humans will always be above technology.

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