The robots are coming, warns Suresh Prabhu

Suresh Prabhu warns that the advent of robots could pose a huge challenge globally in terms of job losses


Railway minister Suresh Prabhu (2nd from left). Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Railway minister Suresh Prabhu (2nd from left). Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

New Delhi: The advent of robots in the workplace, at a time when India is putting in place a plan to improve the skill sets of its people, poses a huge challenge globally, railway minister Suresh Prabhu warned on Thursday.

“What is really happening is robots are coming in a big way and that is going to create a huge challenge. People say that we always find a solution to problems when the problem comes in but that is one way of saying it. The other is don’t trouble trouble until trouble troubles you,” Prabhu said at an interactive session of the India Economic Summit.

“Japan develops robots because of their aging population but will that technology remain limited to their borders. Will that not spill over? I think this is something that we need to mainstream into looking at policy support necessary for development of technologies,” he added.

According to International Labour Organization numbers released in July, an estimated 137 million Asian workers could lose their jobs to robots in the next 20 years. In January this year, the US Census Bureau suggested that robots will take over as many as five million jobs in the US alone by 2020. Adidas’s Ansbach factory, run by robot workers, is due to start production in 2017.

“I think this is a big issue.... In the global context, we need to understand...where we are going to find jobs for 7 billion people,” Prabhu said.

Use of a fully automated shop floor helps companies reduce manufacturing cost and limit the involvement of humans significantly, affecting the prospects of employment.

“For John, if it is big data then for me it is ‘big job’,” Prabhu said, responding to an argument by John G. Rice, vice-chairman of General Electric Co., on companies facing a challenge in moving to Big Data in order to make life easier for humans. “We really need to find out how to find new jobs and impart skills in people to find jobs.”

“In many countries there are laws and regulations attempting to restrict the ability of ours to move data around. Indonesia does not want that to happen. Over time, there could be limitations to the value of the big data. Governments should ensure balance of access,” Rice said.

Rice’s firm wants a digital copy of each of the locomotives that it produces.

“In computing, the next step for us is going to be the development of a digital tool. So, for every locomotive that we produce, we will have a digital copy from birth. We will track everything that happens to that locomotive. We are going around the corner to do that to capture and digitise every aspect of a locomotive,” Rice said.

The combination of robots and big data analytics is a powerful mix that could challenge jobs. Big data analytics leverages large amounts of structured and unstructured as well as fast-moving data such as real-time conversations on text, email and social media, video images, photos, data from location sensors in our phones, etc. If this ability is imparted into robots, they will not just take away jobs on shop floors but also have the potential to disturb some of the white-collared jobs.

So, will this transition happen?

According to Landon Downs, president and co-founder, 1QB Information Technologies, as quantum computers mature, there is going to be a huge surge of demand for people who are going to programme those kinds of systems.

“Today, since it is a relatively new field, there are very few people doing that. It presents tremendous opportunity for India’s population as it has a very large IT-savvy workforce. If they engage with things like big data and quantum computing, they can really create a lot of opportunities,” he said.

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