Are We Ready For The Robot Revolution?

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Robots revolution is on its way. They are slowly and steadily replacing human workforce. How can we prepare for the future?

At the launch of the ‘Make in India’ week in Mumbai, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had his second encounter with the ‘YuMi’ robot. A small, dual-arm ‘collaborative’ robot, YuMi can see with the help of a camera and perform fine operations that were once the sole domain of human hands.

It’s marketed as the perfect companion to humans on a factory floor. But what it represents is also the end of human labour on the factory floor. As robots grow cheaper, more flexible and gain the ability to learn, the value of hiring a human being gets lesser and lesser. One need only watch CGP Grey’s “Humans Need Not Apply” video to get an understanding of how automation is on course to take your job – no matter what it is (even the soundtrack to the video was composed by a robot).

There is always a degree of fear around new technologies. But India’s demographics give us good reason to be worried. The majority of Indians are young, with more than the population of Russia expected to join the workforce by 2030. To tap this, the dream of Make in India is to generate employment for 100 million workers by 2022.

But by then, it might already be too late – automation will start replacing human jobs en masse by 2021, with one out of every four jobs lost to it worldwide expected to be from India. Could the robot revolution turn India’s demographic dividend into an unemployment nightmare? The answer depends on what skills Indians can bring to the market.

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A 2016 International Labour Organization report cited studies that predict low-skill, repetitive tasks will be the easiest to replace through automation.

Jobs resistant to computerization involve extensive non-routine, abstract tasks that require judgment, problem-solving, intuition, persuasion and creativity… Jobs that also resist automation are those with non-routine, manual tasks that demand a high degree of situational flexibility and human interaction.

In India, the situation is a mixed bag. Initially, the vulnerable sections are likely to be those derisively termed ‘cyber coolies’ – performing low-end programming work at a low-cost. But the country also has a thriving base of English-speaking customer support executives – providing a level of human interaction that angry customers cannot get from an automated phone call.

The problem is there’s competition. A Horses for Sources report (HFS) predicted that call centres from the Philippines could survive automation thanks to their emphasis on voice-based customer support, high quality of service and multi-lingual operations.

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The prospects for India were not as rosy – it estimates that 640,000 low-skilled jobs would be cut by automation, creating only 160,000 in the process. For India, this will mean a 14 percent decline in the service sector workforce.

It’s triggered fears that the IT sector could be facing large-scale layoffs soon. When Cognizant announced that it would lay off up to six percent ‘low-performing’ members of its Indian workforce – the word going around was that automation had already started replacing human workers. Coupled with layoffs at Infosys and Wipro, this has led some to say that the sector is undergoing a recession.

But the reality is that Indian IT is growing, hiring and reskilling. Employers have started massive reskilling programmes for their employees – with the market to retrain workers now a lucrative one. As report after report suggests that fresh graduates in various disciplines are mostly unemployable, the onus is on companies to keep them off the streets.

As Indian IT workers slowly enter the high-end domain of coding, the services sector is keeping an optimistic outlook. Can the same be said for manufacturing?

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On April 4, a subsidiary of Tata Motors received certification for sale of its ‘Brabo’ robot in Europe. In contrast to the Indian labourer, who can work roughly 250 business days in a year, the Brabo can work 24/7 and perform many of the tasks that currently employ millions of workers in India and around the world.

It’s a smart move – why compete with the robots when you can just make them instead? It keeps India competitive with developed nations who are also doing the same.

In the meantime, the government is trying hard to get done with India’s long-pending manufacturing revolution. Developing nations normally go from being agriculture driven to industrialized to becoming a services economy. India skipped the middle step – at the cost of becoming import-reliant, and generating few jobs despite massive economic growth.

Becoming the factory of the world was a development model that worked for China. But analysts now say they may be the last ones to do it. All over the industrialized world, automation is replacing costly, inaccurate human labour. With robots getting cheaper and humans more expensive, there’s little incentive to hire flesh over metal.

Be it in manufacturing or in services, reskilling the workforce is the need of the hour. India’s ambitious National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC) has set a target to ‘train’ 400 million workers within seven years – as part of the ‘Skill India’ mission. It might just be the last time slot to prepare a young, emergent workforce for the future.

India’s rich base of handicraft arts also gives her a competitive advantage over the robot. They’re also high-skill tasks that are not yet on the chopping board going by contemporary trends in robotics. Besides that, artisan products take their appeal from the handmade factor. What India also has is a thriving services sector that has consistently defied experts with its growth. Few other countries have such an array of human services available for every need.

It’s India’s golden hour to train, skill and prepare the world’s largest emerging workforce for the wave of automation that is to come. It’s an experiment unparalleled in history and for the sake of mankind, one hopes that India will demonstrate the solution to technology-driven unemployment.

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