Coping with the automation revolution: The need for strong policies

India is one of the few countries with both an AI policy and a reskilling programme, but time-bound execution is essential to ride out the digital tsunami with minimal negative impact

Updated: Feb 6, 2019 05:38:06 PM UTC
Image: Shutterstock

A technological revolution is underway and it is subtly but quickly changing the way work gets done. With an ageing population in several developed and nearly developed economies, we need to find alternate ways to get work done--either through automation or by repurposing human labour.

This revolution is altering relationships between enterprises, employees and customers. In fact, it is impacting the entire human race. It has already changed the way we search, with Alexa, OK Google and Siri; the way we bank, with robo advisors in the front office; and the way a doctor administers medicines with IoT devices, artificial skins and AI-led diagnostic solutions, and so on.

Technology is making us smarter and pushing the globe towards an intelligent bot-economy. But what makes this transformation appealing also makes it potentially dangerous–think about the DDOS (distributed denial of services) attack carried out by bots some time ago, or cryptocurrency thefts and their use in trade of illegal drugs, chemicals and terror funding. It is imperative that we understand the impact and design policies and regulations to exploit this digital revolution safely, carefully and in its entirety; at the same time, enable the human race to plan, adopt and minimise negative impact in the form of large scale job / skill redundancies that it may bring with it.

Seldom do we encounter a change of this magnitude. Now, there is no turning back. Hence the question facing all of us is not whether you are ‘for’ or ‘against’ digital or cognitive or artificial intelligence. However, it is about the uncertainty and anxiety that this digital revolution brings with it. It has the potential to fuel social upheaval about the future, leading to economic turmoil and the potential to cause a financial and societal breakdown never witnessed in history.

While in the past, humans adapted to using steam power and electricity, chances are that we will do so again with the digital revolution. But this time around, global collaboration and partnership, joint policies and global change management will be a must.

The issues that policy makers raise are complicated, whereas for businesses, the real benefits of automation are comparatively clear. The benefits at a macroeconomic level can’t be denied--it is estimated that automation could raise productivity growth on by as much as 0.8 to 1.4 percent annually around the world. Therefore, the right approach is to formulate smart policies that can help realise the maximum potential of these new technologies while curtailing the expected disruptions.

Policy makers need to embrace this opportunity to provide necessary fillip to their economies to benefit from productivity growth, increased investments and newer market incentives. They will need to focus on policies that respond to changes driven by the digital revolution at multiple levels-–global, regional/national, organisational and societal. These policies will have to support the workforce, companies and various other institutions to adapt to the impact on employment and provide transition support for those dislocated. They must also prepare for reskilling and upskilling needs, and rethink education and training programs. In addition, policy makers across the globe will need to collaborate to deal with, amongst other things, data protection, technology regulations, treaties against cyber wars, data siphoning, international taxation, labour policies, inequality and so on. There is a need to alter the current educational curriculum to ensure that students of today are operating in a domain where they can master the art of creating and using technology-led solutions to compliment them to become smarter, rather than be replaced by these solutions.

As an example, India is one of the few countries that has both an AI Policy (albeit a working draft) and a reskilling programme. This is a great start. But we need more focus and time-bound execution for programmes such as Skill India to help ride out the current digital tsunami with minimal negative impact.

The author is a Partner, Intelligent Automation at EY.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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