Steam engines, electricity and computer-mediated communications technologies drove the first, second and third industrial revolutions, which progressively transformed the workplaces and radically altered our lives. However, irrespective of the magnitude of the technological evolution, machines always stayed imbecile and, therefore, required humans to instruct and run them.
But for the first time in human history, we are staring at the prospect of the emergence of cognitive machines that have the potential to edge out humans entirely from the workplace. Workplaces the world over, whether they are manufacturing facilities or offices, are undergoing a makeover. Gone are the days when people would go to their workplaces punctually, get glued to their chairs or workstations throughout the day, and deal with the tasks that come their way.
Now, they work by using ultra-portable computing devices, which provide them with connectivity on the go and enable them to work not only from their offices but also even remotely. In manufacturing facilities, the robotic hands are executing most of the work efficiently with few defects. The workplace transformation is set to reach new heights.
Fourth Industrial Revolution
Some emerging technologies, such as the Internet of Things (IoT), big data, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and augmented and virtual reality, which herald what is known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, are going to trigger a paradigm shift in the way people live and work. The kind of automation that is on the anvil now is qualitatively different from what we have hitherto witnessed.
The technology and the resultant gadgets we had till now proved to be mere dumb machines that required human intervention to function. In sharp contrast, the emerging technologies have the ability to create machines that have cognitive capabilities and even personalities and, therefore, have the potential to make humans obsolete. Because these precision engineered cognitive machines, which have deep learning abilities, are capable of taking data-driven decisions and are more efficient and less prone to mistakes than their human counterparts.
In any free market economy, investors aim at profit maximisation. Globalisation empowered multinationals of the US and Europe to offshore their jobs to developing countries with an aim to cut their labour costs. Now, to cut their costs further, they are planning to do away with employing humans in the workplace and replace them with robots.
A study by Deloitte found out that while offshoring manufacturing jobs to low-cost economies can save up to 65% on labour costs, replacing human workers with robots can save up to 90% of these costs. Experts predict that in future humans will be deployed only in those places where their presence is absolutely necessary. They also predict that there will be very less full-time employment and ‘gig economy’ will flourish.
In other words, a multitude of freelancers would wait online to grab ‘piece work’ opportunities where they are paid per task. The reputation engines enable the clients to rate the quality of the freelancers, which in turn empower the freelancers to build trust with them.
The likelihood of technology-induced job losses becoming a reality is causing a lot of anxiety. Dell Technologies, in its recent study titled ‘The Next Era of Human-Machine Partnerships’ observes that 85% of jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t yet been invented and, therefore, the fear of job loss is unfounded.
There are some others, especially Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, who advocate the introduction of Universal Basic Income (UBI) as a compensation for the impending job loss. The differing opinions make it obvious that people don’t have a clear idea about how the technology will affect the job prospects.
The advent of disruptive technologies is likely to bring about massive changes, that too at a rapid pace. People, in order to keep themselves employable, have to learn new knowledge and acquire new skills ‘in the moment’ and technologies such as virtual and augmented reality may come in handy for them. Moreover, the current education system, which puts a lot of emphasis on filling children with knowledge rather than cultivating cognitive skills, requires immediate reform.
In the near future, most of the repetitive tasks will be assigned to the machines and only those tasks that demand high level of creativity and cognitive capabilities will be assigned to humans. Since not all humans are endowed with equally good creative capabilities, there may be many who will be left behind in this rat race and may be deprived of a source to earn their livelihood.
Turn to Marx
History is replete with instances where more technology and more mechanisation invariably strengthened the hands of the capitalist profit mongers and weakened the position of the workforce. As Karl Marx had rightly stated, “Machines were, it may be said, the weapon employed by the capitalist to quell the revolt of specialised labour”.
Irrespective of the way the technologies and workplaces evolve, governments have to formulate suitable policies to protect ‘human’ interests, not the ‘machine’ interests for when they protect machine interests, the ultimate beneficiaries will be the big businesses who will own those machines.
The impending paradigm shift in the workplace necessitates the introduction of a new economic model. Otherwise, the people who will be wronged could become a source of many societal problems.
We need to build a new economic model, which will not only maximise the well-being of all the humans but also attracts them towards sustainable living. However, that is not very easy to achieve though not impossible. Because the free market capitalists, who have been having it all their way ever since the emergence of the neo-liberalism, will not give up their powers and privileges so easily.
(The author is a former Associate Professor)