RA Mashelkar: “Automation to replace 69% jobs a serious concern”

Leading scientist and former CSIR chief, Dr RA Mashelkar explains the emerging technological scenario, the subsequent job losses and how to deal with it, in this interview with National Herald



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Sebastian PT

India has seen a jobless growth in the last few years. According to Labour ministry data, around 1.2 crore people enter the workforce every year; however, in 2015, only 1.35 lakh jobs were created. In this backdrop, spontaneous disruption in technologies is set to soon debilitate jobs massively, which our policymakers don’t seem to be factoring in. In an interview with Sebastian PT, leading scientist and former CSIR chief, Dr RA Mashelkar, explains the emerging technological scenario, the subsequent job losses and how to deal with it all. Edited excerpts.


Soon, a spontaneous disruption of many technologies such as automation, internet of things, robotics, 3D printing and so on is expected to cause huge job losses. What would be the impact on the Indian job scenario?

It is indeed a very exciting time to be alive. In addition, there are technologies such as big data analytics, autonomous vehicles, wearable electronics, next-generation genomics and so on. The sum total of all these ‘disruptive’ technologies are in fact ‘constructive’ technologies and have the potential to yield enormous benefits to humanity.


However, there are valid concerns that today’s technologies are displacing workers faster than the economy can create new jobs for them. In their 2013 paper ‘The Future of Employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation’, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne of Oxford University predicted that 69% of jobs in India are at risk of being replaced by automation (based on World Bank data). So yes, it should be a serious concern for all of us and we should be looking at a comprehensive mitigation strategy.

However, the progress of technology is inevitable. We should ensure that technological change is not socially destructive – this means having the right government policies and speedy implementation; a social ‘safety net’ for displaced employees; overhauling our education system to meet the needs of the future, constantly upgrading the competitiveness of our people and organisations and staying ahead of employment trends.
Dr RA Mashelkar


Computers are not just beating humans in games such as chess and Go but also replacing humans in many high intellect functions too. Where are we headed to?

We are heading towards zero-hour contracts, ‘flat hierarchies’, 15-hour workweeks, reverse migration, anywhere and anytime skills delivery, a four-generational workplace, robotic colleagues and hyper diversity – which could all mark a new era of human productivity and achievement. World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab calls it the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”.


There is, however, a flipside. Earlier, automation was assumed to have ramifications limited only to traditional manufacturing, thus impacting the working class only, who would find better employment elsewhere. With the rise of artificial intelligence, automation of knowledge work is now impacting the vast middle classes. This in turn poses the danger of accelerating the already widening economic inequality around the world. Consider this: from 2016 to 2025, up to two-thirds of the $9 trillion knowledge worker market is likely to be impacted.


However, the progress of technology is inevitable. We should ensure that technological change is not socially destructive – this means having the right government policies and speedy implementation; a social ‘safety net’ for displaced employees; overhauling our education system to meet the needs of the future, constantly upgrading the competitiveness of our people and organisations and staying ahead of employment trends.


When economist JM Keynes spoke of ‘technological unemployment’, he referred it to as a ‘temporary phase of maladjustment’. However, the new technologies may permanently debilitate many jobs...

Keynes’ sentiment is valid even today. New technologies may destroy existing jobs, but they will always end up creating a newer set of jobs—take for example the now ubiquitous job profile of a data analyst that didn’t exist until a few decades ago. For every job that the internet may destroy, 2.4 other jobs are created.


Productivity and cost gains that are achieved through automation help people to have access to products and services at lower costs, which lead to an increase in consumer savings as well as spending. And all this naturally results in more opportunities for employment in the consumer goods market. So this is one example of automation-led, productivity-led, economic growth-led job creation.


What kind of a strategy should India adopt to create jobs?

India is lucky as there will be some time lag before we get affected by these job losses. India is presently a largely informal economy with high transaction costs, and massive exclusion of vast parts of the population from any structured access to goods and services. Therefore, using technology to reduce transaction costs, reducing the informal systems and creating formal systems, and using data to bring consumers and small business into the organised credit will create enough productivity and jobs for some years to come. But this will differ in different sectors. Some sectors— banking, for instance—are already getting affected very fast.


India’s strategy should be multipronged— while we create employment, we also need to ensure that our people are employable and that the right policies are in place for the job market.


How can the country’s various educational and training institutes ensure that their syllabi is relevant to deal with the future?

Even the best educational and training institutes across the world are grappling with the problem of syllabi. Earlier, it was enough to ‘keep up’ with technological change. Today, the problem is twofold: the accelerated pace of technological change and shorter technological lifecycles.


A more permanent solution would be to impart the skills of the future – many of which are ‘soft’ skills –which will enable employees to navigate the future job market. Even corporates have to enhance their contributions: every company has to become a university.


Is the huge focus on IITs and the like the right way to go?

Our IITs are centres of excellence acknowledged across the world as premier institutions. It isn’t a question of either accessible education-for-all or IITs. The answer lies in accessible education-for-all and premier institutes such as IITs. I think we need focus on education at every level, in a way that our education strategy straddles the entire pyramid.

Along with the requisite subject matter expertise, employees of the future will need to foster soft skills. These are resilience, adaptability, resourcefulness and cultural sensitivity. Equally critical will be the ability to work across different disciplines, collaborate virtually, manage uncertainty through flexibility, and finally be more network-oriented, project-based and technology-intensive.
Dr RA Mashelkar


What are the jobs that technology can’t still take away? What skill sets are needed for the emerging jobs?

Currently, there are still some jobs that are the forte of us humans – jobs that require emotional and relational work, manual dexterity, lateral thinking, creativity, synthesizing, problem-solving, and intelligent interpretation. However, this will also eventually face the threat of automation. For instance, Scott French used his Macintosh computer to generate two-thirds of the content of a book – which he then published. Vince Di Bari, former vice president of the Los Angeles local of the American Federation of Musicians, estimated recording jobs for human musicians have dropped off by at least 35% because of synthesisers.


However, technology obsoletes itself at an increasingly accelerated pace. Therefore, we need more people, who will create new technology. Further, people are required to maintain any new emerging technology, be it internet of things or advanced robotics or automation of knowledge work or 3-D printing. Then people are also required to assist other people in using new technology. Have you heard of online chaperones who help people with managing online risks such as identity theft? Finally, new technology requires new labour forms. Therefore, there will be a great demand for experts to design, test, implement, and refine smart automated information systems.


Along with the requisite subject matter expertise, employees of the future will need to foster soft skills. These are resilience, adaptability, resourcefulness and cultural sensitivity. Equally critical will be the ability to work across different disciplines, collaborate virtually, manage uncertainty through flexibility, and finally be more network-oriented, project-based and technology-intensive.


Finally, going on the title of your book, what needs to be done to ‘Reinvent India’?

I think we are already on the right path of ‘Reinventing India’. For instance, India has the third largest cluster of artificial intelligence and machine learning start-ups, next only to the US and UK.


We should ‘Reinvent India’ in a way that fits with the world. Our challenges are global – take for instance climate change, food production, and inequality – and the only answers that will matter will also be global. As technology restructures the general social contract around the type and number of jobs and employment in the world, it is up to us to work together, aim higher and still be more ‘human’ than ever before.


Dr RA Mashelkar is a National Research Professor, the President of Global Research Alliance, National Innovation Foundation, former DG of Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, president of Indian National Science Academy and a member of the Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister for around three decades. He tweets at @rameshmashelkar

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Published: 23 Dec 2016, 2:06 PM