Re-imagining the automation disruption

The future will be tamed by those who are able to unlearn quickly, pick up new skills and collaborate effectively, as turnaround times reduce dramatically and go-to-market gets quicker


The idea of machines and humans coexisting as co-workers to complement each another is arguably a more realistic one than AI replacing humans completely. Photo: iStockphoto
The idea of machines and humans coexisting as co-workers to complement each another is arguably a more realistic one than AI replacing humans completely. Photo: iStockphoto

It’s called the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Curiously, rapid developments happening in fields previously thought to be disjointed are now amplifying each other.

We are seeing this in the areas of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, robotics, nanotechnology, 3D printing, genetics and biotechnology. On a different tangent altogether, smart systems are able to address a diverse set of issues ranging from climate to supply chains. What must be underscored here is a sense of urgency. Perhaps less than five years is what we have to enable this transition.

A WEF (World Economic Forum) report which was released last year referred to an alarming piece of statistic—65% of children entering primary school today will end up working in jobs that don’t yet exist. “Alarming” if we don’t prepare now, but it can be hugely rewarding if we do, as it provides an opportunity for humans to acquire better skills. This isn’t a robotic apocalypse as some quarters would have us believe.

It’s a time to AQT (pronounced “act”).

As an illustration, AQT is a popular automation framework developed by Tech Mahindra to deliver continuous increase in business efficiency (faster, cheaper, better) for our stakeholders and ourselves through intelligent automation. AQT is implemented using our AQT Toolkit to achieve year-on-year productivity improvement, straddling across task-driven to knowledge- driven (basic, robotic, autonomous and cognitive). A simple formula acts as the guiding principle here: A (automation) = Q (quality) / T (time).

Machines continue unabated in pursuit of mimicking humans, and seem to be making astounding progress. If we see from an Indian IT industry standpoint, automation of jobs has already led to decoupling of productivity and employment.

At the time industry revenue was $100 billion, there were three million people in direct employment. It is expected that the next 100 will require anything between 1-2 million people only.

Martin Ford, in his popular book, The Rise of Robots, has estimated the amount of data stored globally to be in the range of thousands of exabytes (an exabyte is equal to a billion gigabytes). And, Moore’s Law is very much applicable—data doubling every three years.

All this data comes from different sources and resides in unstructured form.

It is but inevitable that skills in data science/computer science will be in great demand, as we leapfrog towards data-based decision-making in business, including almost every other aspect of life.

The idea of machines and humans coexisting as co-workers to complement each another is arguably a more realistic one than AI replacing humans completely. Repetitive jobs, including those with a very high degree of predictability are likely to get replaced by machines. This may not be such a bad thing after all. It may actually free up humans to enable them to become knowledge creators or curators in pursuit of higher cognitive skills.

It is estimated that by 2020, in most occupations, at least a third of the desired core skill sets will be comprised of skills that are not yet considered crucial to the job.

With such powerful and complex technologies doing the rounds, there will be a distinct need for people with great persuasive skills who are able to put forward the value proposition cogently and clearly, in the minds of buyers. Perhaps EQ (emotional quotient) will have a greater appeal than what it has today?

The global tech spend in 2014 was approximately $2.7 trillion. By 2025, this figure is expected to touch $4 trillion or thereabouts. Now in 2014, all of 90% constituted traditional tech spend and only 10% was towards digital.

However, in 2025, it is widely believed that this ratio would be 60:40 in favour of digital. Is the talent pipeline robust enough to enable this shift? We don’t want a supply side constraint.

There is a shortage in the market today of people who are equipped with the necessary skills to ace digital opportunities. Undeniably, the rate of obsolescence is very high. In the earlier industrial revolutions, it often took decades to put training systems in place.

Obviously, this one will not allow such leeway, and so it is essential that this challenge be taken up by stakeholders (government, industry and academia) in tandem by complementing one another, rather than outdoing each other through silos. The future will be about collaborative models which will aid differential approaches to sync together in a giant-sized jigsaw.

There is also a “dark side to digital” which continues to raise its ugly head through unending cyberattacks. Battlefields of the future will be in cyberspace, as keyboard warriors try to wrest control. At Nasscom, we believe cybersecurity to be a $35 billion opportunity by 2025, and there is a definitive charter to create 1 million jobs, and also spawn 1,000 start-ups in this domain.

However, behind every cloud is a silver lining. The Indian IT industry has ridden many disruptive waves in the past, and this time too, it will be no different.

The future will be tamed by those who are able to unlearn quickly, pick up new skills, work in flatter organizational structures, and collaborate effectively, as turnaround times reduce dramatically and go-to-market gets quicker.

Let us see this as an opportunity to re-skill ourselves to add value, stay relevant and move continually up the proverbial value chain that we keep referring to.

C.P. Gurnani is chairman of Nasscom and managing director of Tech Mahindra Ltd.

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