Employment In The Age Of Machines


On the one hand, we cannot stop the arrival of technology to the country; on the other, machines could cost human employment; here is a formula to make science cohabit peacefully with welfare, the government must note after its futuristic pronouncements in the Budget

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has spoken eloquently about a technologically rich India of the future while delivering his Budget speech today. ‘Make in India’, launched four years ago, remains one of the flagship schemes of government to set the country up as a manufacturing base for the world and to manufacture goods consumed here. The primary idea is to create enough jobs so that the country can benefit from its demographic dividend. But even as the opposition makes the necessary noises and the government quibbles about the precise data of employment, a reality check is needed to see if enough employment gets generated by following the roadmap to the future the government is suggesting.

Capitalist inevitability

As it has happened in the past, technology plays an important part in shaping society up. This is happening again and will continue to happen in the coming years and decades. Jobs, as we know today, will not be the same. It will force many changes on society.

Focussing on the impact on automation and artificial intelligence on manufacturing and society, some ways to benefit from it and some ideas to mitigate its impact, a fundamental question to look for is that of the impact on private companies. In a nutshell, the contribution of manufacturing in the country’s GDP is 25% and, in employment, it’s close to 12%. This is encouraging, but the corresponding employment figures are dismal. With the Narendra Modi government’s push for manufacturing, a slew of reforms and FDI inflows, the contribution will increase, but one is not sure about the increment in employment percentage. The culprit may be automation and leapfrogging in technology adaption.

Actual and perceived job losses

According to some estimates, automation and robotics can replace manpower in the ratio of 1:3, 1:300 or 1:3,500, depending on the cost, function and complexity of robots. Single-function robots are cheap in terms of capital investment and can replace up to three workers for a simple function. Multi-functional, AI-enabled, fully reconfigurable adaptive robots are expensive and not so easy to maintain, but these result in replacing 300 to 3,000 workers per robot. All work that single or multi-functional, feature-rich robots are doing is repetitive in nature.

If one considers the automobile sector, robots are getting deployed by all big car manufacturers: Ford, Hyundai, Mahindra etc. They are replacing low-skill jobs. CO-BOTS (industry term for a class of robots that works with humans) are becoming a common phenomenon.

How early or late automation will impact employment generation can be answered as this, in a way, is already happening (new capacity addition announced by car makers are deploying fewer people in comparison to their existing ones). A view is, since the deployed manufacturing base in India is relatively low, the actual job loss will be less, but perceived job losses will be more.

With new companies establishing bases in India, even the existing ones that are expanding (especially automobile manufacturing) are embracing automation in a big way. Of course, the situation is not alarming for the currently deployed workforce.

‘Inevitable automation’ opportunity

The state should focus on the automation industry as a priority. They comprise companies dealing with robotics/services/manufacturing, assembling, maintenance, operations, deployment, ancillaries that supply to robotic companies like motor, drives, electronics and electrical gigs, boards, moulders, forgers etc. Then there are companies dealing with the Internet of Things (IoT) and automation, software, hardware, services, deployment and research. The whole automation sector should be given some incentives or relaxation in rules.

India should aim at becoming the world leader in robotics, automation and the IoT industry. This will create an ecosystem for industries dealing in cutting-edge technology; its offshoots will help establish India as a prominent knowledge base.

Employment from artificial intelligence and automation

A year ago, announced a deployment of HOLMES an AI enterprise solution, which will impact around 3,000 jobs that are, according to the company, menial in nature. So far, even ‘mundane jobs’ required human workers. IBM announced a powerful supercomputer of the size of three stacked family pizza boxes. Companies are seriously contemplating the use of AI to automate repetitive and predictable tasks nowadays classified as “mundane”.

One cannot stop technological advances; one can only remain ignorant about it. However, can AI be used to solve problems that are resource hungry? We can use AI in areas where we have a lack of resources or capacity shortage. We can deploy AI-based health diagnostic systems in tertiary healthcare centres where deployment of regular doctors is an issue due to the scarcity of qualified medical practitioners.

Nodal centres at the block level or Gramin Swasthya Kendras can have a couple of trained health workers each to operate these systems. Skilling the health worker is easier than producing doctors.

Capitalist-socialist way

The state must initiate a process to formulate an exhaustive list of objects, things or commodities required in every office, factory, school, government department — everywhere from the central government to the municipal or level. These must be classified as per their origin of manufacturing and the money spent on their purchase. The list must be made public and people asked to manufacture these in the country.

Let’s assume that t5he All India Institute of Medical Sciences identifies a bandage which is imported and its annual expenditure is Rs 70 lakh. Let it be manufactured in India. What is required but not getting made in India is the key information that needs to be highlighted, promoted and hand-held for a few years to revitalise the manufacturing ecosystem.

Socialist way: Recruit for welfare

Integrate PMKVY (Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojna) and volunteers trained under MGNREGA — change the ‘R’ from rural to ‘rurban’ (rural-urban) — and facilitate their deployment.

  • “Clean-Mitr” tied to Swatch Bharat Abhiyan: Give a high priority to waste management industries, waste processing units, waste to energy units, organic waste to compost, e-waste processing units
  • “Ganga-Mitr”/“Yamuna-Mitr”/”Narmade-Mitr”/etc. tied to Namami Gange: Monetary benefit schemes for cleaning rivers, ponds, lakes, reviving water bodies
  • “City-Mitr” tied to Smart Cities: Volunteers to maintain services like elderly care, child care, pregnancy care, adult education, education for homeless and destitute, physical library setup, museum volunteers, park and recreational space maintenance
  • “Jal-Mitr” tied to water management: at urban centres, groundwater recharge, water harvesting units, watershed management and maintenance, wastewater management.

Universal wage scheme

Another idea gaining currency is the Universal Wage Scheme for the unemployed to generate tangible results and maintain existing resources. In other words, a cash transfer scheme. Though a populist measure, this can help in containing emotional overruns. How it will get deployed successfully is an important aspect; it might end up as a corruption-laden solution. With JAM, a reasonable framework can be hammered out and a scheme with adaptive policies can be considered.

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