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Automation and future jobs: A challenge or an opportunity

Automation has been buzzing around for the last few decades. The technological advancements are consanguineous to automation of the processes carried out by human beings. The chronology of industrial revolutions dates back to the first industrial revolution in the 18th century with the inception of steam power and mechanization of production which was followed by the second industrial revolution starting in the 19th century with the use of electricity and mass production being in focus, the third industrial revolution in the ’70s in 20th century with partial automation, computers, programmable controls and memory came at the centre stage. The miniaturization of systems, microprocessor-based control, computer systems with networking, improving productivity, etc. was constantly tried at the time when the fourth industrial revolution popularly termed Industry 4.0 came up to apply information and communication technologies in the industry. The expanse of the internet gave additional impetus to the ongoing automation, networking of systems, and cyber-physical systems emerged into prominence. The remotely controlled operation of machines and their processes became a reality with the fast-growing reach of the internet, smartphones, and computers.

But, the quest for expediting the processes and their hazard-free and efficacious execution has a flip side of too much dependence on machines leading to the loss of nearly 375 million jobs by 2030 worldwide as per studies available. The USA is expected to automate 14 to 80 million jobs and around 73 million jobs may be lost whereas 1.5 million jobs may be lost in the UK, 17 million job losses in Germany and 236 million jobs may be lost in China because of automation. Brookings Institution reports a loss of 36 million jobs due to artificial intelligence (AI) while the World Economic Forum claims the creation of 58 million jobs from a spread of AI applications.  Despite dichotomous arguments regarding the impact of automation, the increase in productivity of manufacturing processes with declining manpower demands cannot be ruled out. The increasing intervention of machines in the handling of various activities in all sectors contributing to the economy is bound to affect the manual requirements adversely. However, this is opening new vistas for developing automated and intelligent systems with the involvement of human intelligence and efforts.

Challenges

The collective endeavour for getting things done using machines and their automatic is culminating in intelligent digital systems with the ability to remain productive without human involvement. There is an obvious replacement of many persons by infusing artificial intelligence into digital manufacturing systems. The loss of jobs on account of such transformations is prominently upon the shop floor jobs. Robots replacing humans for doing certain tasks are ubiquitous in various industries. 

For example, automation in the food industry, agriculture, construction sector, health sector for operating healthcare machines, medical robots, multipurpose robots, autonomous vehicles, unmanned operations, etc. are gradually eliminating the manpower requirements. To elaborate further, let us realize how automation has replaced manpower in the food industry where technological advancements have paved the way for mechanized preparation of ingredients for cooking, recipe-based automatic cooking, machines for cleaning utensils, robots for lifting and placing items, services like waiters, etc.  Why doctors are required for the diagnosis of disease and prescribe a line of treatment if a similar symptom-based diagnosis is carried out using an interactive software application? Hospitals are heavily relying on technology in extending health services. The reliance on washing machines, mopping machines, cleaning machines, surveillance systems, etc. has undoubtedly eased life and reduced dependence on domestic helps. The complete agriculture value chain and agriculture business is changing on the premise of low labour input and high yield using technological support.  In the education sector, the new norm of online/blended teaching and self-oriented learning is likely to incur a huge loss of jobs across the world. These are a few instances to perceive the ensuing challenges from the ongoing automation. This has yielded in increasing production of robots for specific purposes by robot manufacturers and the deployment of industrial robots is increasing every day. 

In the specific context of India which is blessed with demographic dividend and has an abundance of young population, the reports indicating the likelihood of loss of 69% of jobs due to automation is discomforting for policymakers. Declining labour demand for medium-skill occupations and imbalance in demand for low and high-skill occupations emanating into exacerbating wage disproportionateness is perturbing for the nations having a mammoth size of population seeking jobs. The situation is equally distressing in developed economies too like those of China, the USA, Japan, South Korea, etc. 

Opportunity:

Automation has effectuated in cyber-physical systems as part of Industry 4.0. The newer opportunities of using intellectual capabilities for having smart systems, smart cities, use of renewable energy, stress on green processes to have environment-friendly systems and processes,  effective utilization of information & communication technology, networking technologies, web-based services, microprocessor controls, etc. have emerged for the millennial generation. The nature of jobs is undergoing a sea change. There is a dire need for competencies for automating the existing systems and processes. This eventually boils down to creating a potential pool of trained resilient human resources in STEM with the ability to adapt to the changes and retrain itself in light of new opportunities. It is reskilling of workers for upgrading themselves to contribute to the changed automated environment because the setting up of automation and its refining inevitably calls for competent workers. For example, the attempts to automate processes are yielding expanding job opportunities in areas of artificial intelligence, machine learning, data science, blockchain technology, web-based applications, real-time control and monitoring, cyber security, robotics, mechatronics, digital manufacturing, 3-D printing, digitalization in all core domains, etc. These broader domains are merely indicative and help in concluding that the core capabilities are essential to hone skills in emerging areas. Along with workers getting reskilled as per forthcoming requirements, the employers also need to realize that they ought to invest in the reskilling of the human resource hired by them. The digital economy warrants hooking up younger minds to train them to sustain and carry technological support for higher productivity, ease of life, human comfort, longevity, good health, equitable society, and prosperity.

Way forward:

Frequent deliberations and concerns on Industry 4.0 pushing for job losses have brought it to the cusp of transformation. The envisaged success of cyber-physical systems for better living conditions is ridden with the loss of jobs and penury in certain sections of society.  Therefore, automation can not be accomplished in isolation rather it has to be practised and remodelled for remaining functional with human interventions. The unmanned operation of systems is not a dream now, but the implications of the same are extremely severe for society as a whole. The fortification of the relationship between man and machine holds the key to sustainable development in the future and is ineluctable. This is how Industry 4.0 is to be pushed to Industry 5.0 i.e. Fourth industrial revolution ushering into the fifth industrial revolution. Utilization of people alongside automated machines and robotics is the need of hour. Skewed development of high-skill manpower for certain domains could be disastrous in the time to come. The education system must focus on the nearly balanced growth of all disciplines of education because cyber-physical systems will be necessitating inputs from all walks of life for their meaningful presence and impact on society in long run.  

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Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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