JAMES JOSEPH, FORMER director at Microsoft India, left the fast-changing world of IT in his prime some years ago after winning a global in-house award of the world’s largest software maker by revenue, to become a food entrepreneur. “One has to re-train and adapt constantly to gain from the rapid growth of the industry,” notes Joseph referring to the job losses that have buffeted the IT segment worldwide as well as India. It is indeed a scene of despair as the march of technology—especially automation—replaces old jobs and rings in the new. The churn is inevitable but traumatic for those who lose their high-paying jobs as they hunt for positions that no longer exist or pay lesser. In the process, the sluggish growth of the local IT industry is expected to impact the national economy dearly. Notwithstanding Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s push towards a ‘digital India’, a recent report by advisory firm McKinsey & Company found that nearly half of the workforce employed in IT services will be ‘irrelevant’ over the next three to four years unless they are re-trained. The IT sector in India directly employs 3.9 million and has nearly three times that many indirect employees. Breakthroughs in artificial intelligence (AI) are not only set to eliminate inefficiencies but also jobs.
These days, global trends in IT and allied industries impact India with immediate effect, thanks to the huge inter-dependence between the West and emerging nations. In India, where IT is a $150-billion industry, the fast growth of AI overseas—as well as advances in biotechnology and a myriad other hi-tech fields—is expected to wreak havoc unless home-grown pros adapt quickly to new demands, and a long list of jobs that will either survive or be created anew. Call centres will be replaced by bots; and just as IT replaced repetitive manual tasks many years ago, repetitive coding will be replaced by AI.
With India extremely volatile to global trends, including US president Donald Trump’s crackdown on migration, the country will need an instant adaptation to requirements of new jobs worldwide. Sci-fi-like predictions offer a grim picture of great strides made by AI and biotechnology. Scholars such as Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, argue that several decades from now the world will be controlled by a microscopic minority of powerful, super humans who would monopolise wealth and political power and a brute majority of ‘useless’ people who aren’t trained enough to work and earn a living and are therefore marginalised.
Harry M. Jansen Kraemer Jr, a professor of strategy at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, refutes this dystopian prediction, saying 20-50 per cent of current jobs in the world may be replaced by new technologies, yet new jobs will surface to accommodate a majority. An executive partner with Madison Dearborn Partners, a private equity firm based in Chicago, Illinois, Kraemer maintains that when it comes to the question of future jobs, he has more opinions than answers. According to him, the major growth areas in the AI, biotech-inspired world would be healthcare, food and water, space science and leisure.
The logic that healthcare will see a huge expansion, spawning endless job opportunities, is based on the assumption that technology- driven healthcare will save more lives from premature and lifestyle-related deaths and therefore result in a large pool of people—which according to Kraemer is at least 20 per cent of the population—living beyond 100 years within the next two decades or so. Branches of medicine that deal with ageing and fighting ageing will see a spike. Naturally, elderly care and the demand of specialised, affordable nursing care will also see a jump. Author and biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey, often called the Prophet of Immortality, who works in the field of regenerative medicine, is of the view that healthcare will increasingly become technology-oriented and less medicine-dependent. Such branches of healthcare that are linked to technology will grow at a fast pace, generating numerous job opportunities.
Already, in India, startup companies such as SigTuple, founded by young entrepreneurs Rohit Kumar Pandey, Tathagato Rai Dastidar and Apurv Anand, use AI technology to digitise pathological tests. The company has come out with an AI-enabled blood smear analysis solution called Shonit, besides other solutions on an AI platform they call Manthana. Unlike technology evangelists who have become public health philanthropists, this new startup, which has raised money from VCs, has on offer new jobs such as front-end engineers who can develop a user interface (or links for customers) for web and mobile apps; full-stack engineers to set up an AI platform for scrutinising medical videos and images; and data scientists who have knowledge of machine learning (a science in which computers are made to respond to new data without being explicitly programmed). Some jobs entail the employees evaluating the company’s solutions through deep learning, which is often referred to as the bleeding edge of machine learning. It is, according to Investopedia, an AI function that imitates the workings of the human brain in processing data and creating patterns for use in decision-making. The qualifications required for most of these positions are either a Bachelor’s or Master’s in computer science besides exceptional analytical skills.
The driving force behind the swift rise in healthcare technology will be the newly emerged philosophy that this segment has to be more data-driven and less trial and error. Various studies have established that traditional methods of treatments have resulted in deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, but they remain unquestioned thanks to doctors’ force of habit to justify long-held beliefs. Doctors are worried about what AI would do to their jobs, with computers of the future capable of dispensing the best medical advice possible, but several AI pundits state that the profession will survive when practitioners re-orient themselves to new technologies. Several experts contend that such machines will only leave more time for doctors to do other work. Zeynep Tufekci, a Turkish-American academic who calls herself a techno-sociologist, says with a caveat, “We cannot outsource our responsibilities to machines. We must hold on ever tighter to human values and human ethics.” Tufekci has, using case studies, lashed out at the ‘biases’ and faulty predictive powers of certain algorithms.
PROFESSOR KRAEMER, MEANWHILE, believes that numerous jobs will be created in the food segment as well as in the generation of pure drinking water as population growth accelerates and consumption rises. Most importantly, the emphasis will be on healthy foods, as lifestyle diseases and various debilitating diseases caused directly or indirectly by dangerous diet habits soar. No wonder Kimbal Musk decided to enter the food business to promote healthy and affordable dining, much against the advice of his older brother and Tesla CEO Elon Musk. The founder of Kitchen, Kimbal called food—healthy food—the new Internet. “Back in 1995, I saw an incredible wave coming: The Internet. I knew I needed to be a part of it, no matter what I did. The food industry today is poised for massive disruption and change. Food is the new Internet. Watch and join me in building the incredible future of food,” says this former tech entrepreneur, now an avowed environmentalist.
While average Indian middle classes, armed with higher disposable incomes, have been eating out and consuming food items that had been considered exotic, such as Italian cuisine and expensive desserts, they seem to be trapped in an entropy of eating too much grain and too little green. It is here that technology giants and others are expected to step in to alter the contents of the Indian palate, which in the past few decades, have contributed to large-scale rise in coronary heart diseases, diabetes, hypertension, renal diseases, cancers and so on. “I see a huge opportunity for newer and newer jobs here,” says Kraemer.
James Joseph, who knows only too well that our industrial foods are high in calories and low in nutrients, is here to tap that economic opportunity. He has invested in hard selling jackfruit, one of the most affordable and fibrous foods, as the food of tomorrow in the country. Last week, after years of marketing and research into the quality of jackfruit—even as a substitute for much more expensive oats—he won two patents for creating a machine that converts raw jackfruit into flour and for developing, with advice from scientists and physicians, the jackfruit flour that binds seamlessly with rice flour and wheat flour. The commercial launch is expected soon, Joseph tells Open.
Joseph, in fact, is a breakaway from the typical mould of techies who often adapt to new challenges. Byju Sukumaran, who has been a successful programmer in the US for more than 22 years and is currently an employee of Microsoft, keeps himself abreast of the changes in the IT industry and the troubles back home. This 43-year-old resident of California Bay Area feels that despite loss of jobs worldwide, there are “still a lot of opportunities in cloud, mobile and data”. Basically, that is because seasoned professionals with deep knowledge about cloud platforms and experience in architecting and migrating application to cloud are hard to find. He goes on, “Data science, machine learning and deep learning are also hot topics these days since more and more companies have started exploring their data to find actionable business intelligence, and there just aren’t enough people with experience in this area.” This is also true of 3D printing, which is growing by leaps and bounds in areas as diverse as biotechnology and fashion, but requires skilled technicians.
Without doubt, being AI-savvy is the way forward as technology is destined to impact a raft of sectors, including manual security and driving. Global job consultant Randstad offers a list of jobs that will be hot in India as well as the world, some of them AI- related and others not. In engineering, it sees a rise in demand for validation engineers, construction project managers and controls engineers. In finance and accounting, sought-after jobs will be found in accountancy, analysis and management; in non-clinical healthcare, it sees a lot of vacancies for administrative assistants, receptionists and executive assistants. In HR, top jobs are HR generalist/ business partner, manager/director and benefits manager. In the case of IT, Randstad predicts great demand for full stack engineers, security engineers and big data engineers. In the field of life sciences, the key job categories are medical writer, clinical study manager and drug safety associate. In manufacturing and logistics, production supervisors, drivers and warehouse supervisors will survive all odds.
“Some of these functions, for instance, like those of trailer drivers, nurses and others will endure through the decades; while others, like security guards will have to become more specialised to survive; some other jobs like those of call centre employees will vanish,” says a Delhi-based senior HR executive of an MNC who has done a range of studies into the Indian job market. Requesting anonymity as she is not authorised to speak to the media, she predicts a lot of chaos before new jobs bring in some stability. “There will be a difficult phase in between,” she said, referring to the largest retrenchment exercise ever by the IT industry, India’s burnished showpiece of its enterprise. By current estimates, close to 60,000 engineers are expected to be let go by the top seven IT services companies over the next year or two. Some of the senior executives of three of these firms told Open that the figure is likely to rise much further. CEOs of several of these companies are expected to meet key government officials late this month to discuss the issue. It doesn’t help that new mechanical and electrical engineering students are still being trained in the old ways in parts of India, leaving large numbers of them unemployable in the new world of AI.
WITH EVIDENCE SUCH as this, the worry persists that AI will lead to massive layoffs and that computers will make human expertise redundant. The fear is compounded by the fact that IBM’s Deep Blue defeated Chess champion Gary Kasparov in 1997 and then, last year, Google DeepMind’s AlphaGo programme thrashed South Korean Go grandmaster Lee Sedol. The likes of futurist Martin Ford and serial entrepreneur and computer scientist Jerry Kaplan have offered grim prospects of an AI revolution. So will the growth of more and more technology mean fewer and fewer jobs? Like Kraemer, Vivek Lall, former Boeing India chief and former CEO of Reliance Industries’ defence business, agrees that there are segments where job cuts are inevitable. Lall, a former NASA engineer who is now global CEO in charge of commercial strategic development at General Atomics, a company that made its name through unmanned spy planes, says AI is likely to first replace the most mechanical jobs, such as non-decision accounting, linear banking, financial analytics computing, stocking, warehouse management, assembly manufacturing, straight line construction, agriculture fieldwork, and shopping-counter management.
He adds, however, “The new jobs that would be in vogue are likely to be related to synaptic functions between the man-machine interface, AI core development, critical data analysis, disruptive mechanism development, management of natural resources, intellectual property and copy-writing, law and architecture.” He is glad that AI is replacing humans in dangerous fields such as metallurgy process and waste management. But he also sees a surge in jobs such as vehicle navigation, personal security devices, creative arts, construction and labour-saving devices that can bring down production costs. Lall, who holds multiple engineering degrees, says next-gen IT pros will have to be trained in a mix and match of both big-data analytics and AI. “Industries most likely to benefit would be the mass production units such as pharma, construction, essential commodities, automobile, composite parts, electronics and food processing,” he says.
For his part, S Ramadorai, former vice-chairman of Tata Consultancy Services and former chief of National Skill Development Agency and National Skill Development Corporation, agrees with forecasts that half of all jobs are at an over 50 per cent risk of being replaced by AI and automation. Based on current trends, the job roles that will be threatened in the foreseeable future are those that do not require a high degree of cognitive skills. According to him, Chatbots and AI-powered personal assistants are becoming increasingly efficient and will soon replace the lower level “first response” service jobs. “Drones, robots, and autonomous vehicles will have a huge impact. Cashiers and tellers in banks have largely been replaced by machines and software in the West, although humans in bank branches now perform higher order tasks like helping customers with financial planning and investing. AI is already being used to generate news articles and customised reports,” Ramadorai says, adding that a few sub-segments within AI are expected to grow faster than others, including natural-language processing, speech recognition and voice-based systems and deep learning platforms. Future IT professionals ought to master probability and statistics, linear algebra and other advanced topics in mathematics, data modelling and evaluation, and system design, he feels.
Here’s where the likes of AI evangelists of the repute of Beena Ammanath enter. She and her team at Humans for AI aim to build the diverse workforce of the future leveraging existing AI technologies. The India-born Silicon Valley hot shot has vowed to transform this independent group as a go-to destination for all things AI and retrain people across a raft of job segments to make them AI-savvy. This group also plans to facilitate interactions with experts for workers who wish to reorient themselves to stay ahead of the race. The goals of Humans for AI also include leveraging “AI to release a set of free products built by this community to further our mission of bringing diversity to AI” and to “demystify AI by providing a basic understanding of the concepts, thinking and events in AI for novices and non-technical people interested in how AI will impact their lives and their jobs”. Ammanath has played a key role in shaping innovations and strategy at Bank of America, GE, Thomson Reuters, e*trade, British Telecom and several Silicon Valley startups.
Another area where new jobs are being created is space science. On June 7th, the US announced it will revive the long-dormant National Space Council, meant to coordinate government agencies. Apparently, the idea is to work with the burgeoning commercial space industry. India is also on an overdrive with regard to its space programme. In the West, commercial space projects have been on full swing. Elon Musk of Tesla wants to beat the NASA in sending a robotic mission to Mars. He has recently changed the timeline for the manned mission to Mars to 2020. To questions whether humans really need to travel to space, Musk had answered, “It’s not just a choice we have to make. It’s a necessity. We will stay on Earth forever and eventually there will be an extinction event… and the alternative is to become a space-faring and multi-planetary species—that’s what we (Tesla) want.” It is not a far-fetched fantasy. Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking has already asserted that humans would need to colonise a new planet within the next 100 years to keep the species alive. In keeping with such reasoning, Kraemer is of the view that space science as a job segment will see a lot of activity with commercial flights being planned to both Moon and Mars. In India, Bangalore-based TeamIndus has plans to send a spacecraft to the moon this December, using an Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) system. “Certainly, such projects, if successful, will revolutionise India’s space sector, especially because the commercial project could inspire many more companies to enter the fray. All this will generate a sizeable number of jobs in the sector,” says an ISRO official. He also hopes “our young scientists” master space science and work for “money as well as thanks to passion”.
Sukumaran of Microsoft states that, with the ever-increasing penetration of the Internet into the lives of ordinary people, online security is an area that will see a quick rise in jobs of various kinds. In the face of cyber attacks from freelance rogues as well as from states-sponsored ones, the Government and the private sector will have to work in tandem to develop cyber defence and offensive capability in the decades ahead. “Security is a constant and fast-changing landscape and good security engineers are in high demand,” avers Sukumaran. With a handful of large private companies monopolising the worldwide web and social media, and with governmental bodies outsourcing the collection and storage of biometric information to private enterprises, personal data is increasingly becoming ‘public’ with few checks or laws in place. This especially leaves the socially disenfranchised, the less educated and digital newbies vulnerable. Cyber warfare is also an insidious and ever-growing tool for terrorism across borders. “Cyber security is fast emerging as the fourth arm of the armed forces,” says a home ministry official who says that students gifted in math and logic will be picked up at a young age and trained to fight for the country. Like in Israel, China, North Korea, Russia and Iran, India also looks to tap such talent young “since it is often the teenagers who are the most Internet-savvy”, says the official.
Interestingly, Kraemer Jr says that leisure is one segment that will see heightened activity once AI picks up in growth. He cites the growing need for people to make the most of their holidays. More and more people will take a break from their jobs as technologies make travel easier and quicker. Besides, children’s interests will find increasing importance in a society that lives longer. Various optimists state that since the beginning of industrial revolution, technology has often displaced people and replaced jobs, but newer jobs have also risen alongside the march of technology— and that it won’t be different this time around. What is key is the ability to adapt in the face of large-scale disruptions and not to fear the machine. Gary Kasparov, many years after losing to Deep Blue, said that artificial intelligence can’t dream; he exhorted humans to dream big. He also offered another solution to the human versus machine debate: “There is an old Russian saying: if you can’t beat them, join them.”
That’s indeed a matchless gambit.