Home >opinion >Fighting the bots for jobs

Two years ago, I saw something that got me really worried about future job losses. I visited a start-up based in the US that demonstrated an Artificial Intelligence (AI)-based platform which automated expense processing for a financial services company. The platform not only increased accuracy but also reduced the employed team of several hundreds by 85%! New jobs added to support the new process were a small fraction of the jobs lost.

Watching the platform at work, it was clear to me that millions of performing rules-based processes were vulnerable to being automated away, especially in the business process outsourcing (BPO) industry in India.

Since then, I have come to know of several other AI-based companies dramatically automating other business processes in insurance, healthcare, financial services, transportation and retail industries. While the pace of adoption is hard to predict, there is little doubt that the impact of such automation will be deep and wide.

This trend does not stop at rules-based business processes. AI is maturing fast to interpret medical reports, legal documents, news clips, seismic information, genomics insights, financial models, etc. As a result, several service industry jobs, especially those performed on a computing device, will be automated in the same way manufacturing jobs have been hit by robotics since the 1980s.

We have seen this movie before. Armed with AI-based hardware and software robots (henceforth referred to as bots), businesses will make a concerted effort to reduce labour, cut costs and enhance shareholder value.

I am not being critical, and do respect the new paradigm, but just accepting this as the new reality gets me seriously worried about the quantum of losses that could happen in the next 5-10 years while giving the existing workforce little time and options to recover and reshape their lives. Even accomplished entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Elon Musk are concerned and have postulated that new job-killing technologies may need to be regulated.

There are optimists among entrepreneurs and academicians who have rightly pointed out that every technology-driven “revolution" also has generated new jobs. But there is very little articulation about the kinds of jobs that will be created this time or how this creation can be accelerated. It is time to change the narrative to focusing on new job creation and taking the fight back to the bots.

Like everyone else, I do not have all the answers but will attempt some and hopefully catalyse more thinking on new opportunities in industries that will continue to be people-intensive.

The new areas for significant job creation potentially will have at least one of two attributes: bot-unsuitability for the work content and a big macro trend creating demand for certain categories of work where humans can beat the bots.

Bot unsuitability for work: Bots are typically programmed to understand repeatable logic and a specific stream of knowledge. They will undoubtedly also get to the variability and mixing knowledge streams but for the foreseeable future, work that involves free-flowing creativity, human emotions and touch, complex physical work with multiple touch-points and values-based interpretations that combine knowledge flows, is out of bounds or difficult. Some examples would be art, music and storytelling (creative), nursing, childcare and mental health (human emotions and touch), urban last-mile logistics (complex physical work) and product ratings (values-based interpretations).

Bots will hit such areas too as I have seen them create news videos, make coffee, compose music, etc. But in many such areas, human creativity can compete and win, at least for a while.

Big macro trend: There are some sitting ducks for job seekers here: 1) Care for the rapidly ageing global population, 2) content integrity with the proliferation of fake, inappropriate and manipulative information on social media, 3) cybersecurity—unfortunately tech alone can’t handle this as the sources and variability of threats will continue to expand, 4) last-mile logistics—e-commerce growth and my inability to see drones running around the streets of Mumbai or any other city suggest that humans are winning this one, 5) disaster prevention and relief: if climate change is for real, then I see big employment opportunities for both public and private disaster stoppers and relief workers, and 6) data workers: not necessarily data scientists, for traditional statistically driven data science work will face AI-driven automation, but data designers and interpreters who link data to new technologies and business context.

Ideal job creation opportunities will take advantage of both these attributes. The opportunities mentioned above by no means provide a comprehensive list and the appropriate list may vary by country or region based on their specific needs as well. For example, construction and infrastructure building will still be attractive employment generators in developing nations.

Like any other competitive battle, the human race needs to take the fight to the bots by aggressively targeting such opportunities and defining what we can do better than, and differently from, the bots. Regulation may be necessary if job losses are sudden and massive, but a better idea would be backing entrepreneurs who are unleashing their energy and creativity on building people-intensive industries of the future which will also create shareholder value.

Neeraj Bhargava is founder, senior managing director and chief executive officer of Zodius Capital Advisors.

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