It was just a few weeks ago that Sophia, an artificial intelligence (AI)-powered humanoid robot developed by Hong Kong-based Hanson Robotics, was given honorary citizenship by Saudi Arabia. While AI is making huge inroads into our day-to-day life, was this something expected to happen so soon? Probably not.
Nevertheless, the success of Sophia as well as other humanoids in activities ranging from shop floor management to complex jobs—sometimes doing tasks better than humans—is a testimony to the disruptions happening with technological advancements. Meanwhile, even though the popular perception is that AI is only going to be a job killer, reports also say that 2020 onwards, AI will start adding more jobs than it would take away. According a report by research firm Gartner, Inc., AI will create 2.3 million new jobs while eliminating only 1.8 million jobs in 2020.
At the recently-held Wall Street Journal CEO Council meeting in Washington DC, I was fortunate enough to listen to two eminent futurists and authors—Martin Ford and Jerry Kaplan—who are known for their pioneering work in the field of AI. Ford, who is better known for his bestseller The Rise of the Robots, was quite articulate that the future is all about “jobless growth", something which is haunting the minds of individuals, job aspirants, political leaders and governments. Ford had points to prove it: on how low-end jobs are all getting automated while machines are getting more intelligent because of deep learning.
Through algorithms and programs, robots can keep on learning and performing tasks—without ever feeling tired, asking for overtime or falling sick. Kaplan, well known in the field of pen computing and tablet computers, had a slightly contrarian view. AI, according to him, is a highly exaggerated word; rather, it is machine learning bringing in an increasing level of automation through robotic processes—something that will only drive productivity, resulting in more job creation and driving investment.
While views and counter-views on ‘man versus machines’ will always be there, the essence of the discussion and the consensus was that technology growth can never be stopped. The apprehension of jobless growth is probably much more of a concern for countries such as India and China, which boast of human capital as their major assets.
There are concerns about social and political upheaval, but they have to be addressed meticulously through large-scale skill upgrade, training and re-skilling.
Technology must always be treated as a ‘friend’, which should augment human intelligence only for the better—it could be to improve productivity, to branch out into newer areas and to make the mundane look more interesting. According to the CEO of a large German elevator maker I met in Washington, his company has in fact created a new service line and a new revenue model using the internet of things (IoT). The company is using IoT to collect data from the elevators to do advanced analytics and preventive and predictive maintenance.
Advanced technologies such as AI, robotic process automation (RPA), machine learning, augmented/mixed reality (AR/MR), big data analytics and cloud computing, supported by the proliferation of smart devices, are the answers to many of the problems the world is going to see tomorrow. According to research by PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, 45% of total economic gains by 2030 will come from product enhancements, stimulating consumer demand. AI will play a focal role here, driving greater product variety with increased personalization, attractiveness and affordability over time.
Research also shows that AI itself has the potential to contribute up to $15.7 trillion to the global economy in 2030, which is more than the current output of China and India put together. So from a macroeconomic point of view, there are far more opportunities for emerging markets to leapfrog the more developed ones.
I remember, at the same WSJ CEO Council summit last year, there were geopolitical concerns since a new government had just taken charge in the US, and many of the economies were on a declining path.
The mood this year was quite upbeat as the US economy is doing well and markets are performing well.
What I found quite encouraging is that CEOs (140 attended the event) are now more than willing to re-engage with the new administration in the US, especially since it comes after the August disbanding of various business advisory councils when many corporate leaders resigned from them. The US is also looking at bringing down the corporate tax rate to 20% from 35% earlier.
The government is recognizing that education and skill upgrades should go hand-in-hand with job creation. In one of the sessions, US secretary of treasury Steven Mnuchin acknowledged that while almost 6.1 million jobs are going to be vacant, companies are not getting enough candidates with hands-on education. So, overall, technology has brought us to a point when we need to introspect whether we are well-equipped and adequately trained to harness some of the future opportunities that are unfolding.
C.P. Gurnani is CEO and MD, Tech Mahindra.