How soon will robots steal our jobs? Asks Neha Pant

Ever since Wipro, one of India’s top software services company announced the launch of Holmes, an artificial intelligence (AI) platform in June, paranoid theories have been doing the rounds that it might just be the beginning of the end for the country’s engineers. Holmes which is described as “rich set of cognitive computing services for the development of digital virtual agents, predictive systems, cognitive process automation, visual computing applications, knowledge virtualisation, robotics and drones.” Automation of certain services has been steadily increasing in the IT service industry where engineers are no longer required to do menial coding jobs and Wipro recently confirmed to Mint (newspaper), that it will make Holmes available to its managers (its use was selective earlier).This means that roughly 3,000 engineers stand to lose their jobs soon at Wipro.

Both of Wipro’s competitors, Tata Consultancy Services and Infosys also have AI platforms that are being used in moderation say newspaper reports. But they might just be forced to take a more aggressive stance on AI after the introduction of Holmes in order to match competition, which means more engineering jobs might be on the line.

According to a report by HfS Research, some 1.4 million jobs will be lost in the IT and BPO sector by 2021 globally.  Why just engineering jobs, according to World Economic Forum (WEF) predictions, there will be a “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” based on “developments in genetics, artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, 3D printing, and biotechnology.” Unlike the previous Industrial Revolutions that have increased the human workforce, this one is expected to set it backward. According to WEF, disruptive labour market changes over the period of 2015-2020 can cost 7.1 million jobs, out of these, two-thirds will be concentrated in the office and administrative job family. At the same time it also states that, two million jobs will be gained in “smaller job families.”

In a new study published by Richard and Daniel Susskind in the Harvard Business Review, the IT researchers dismiss the widely believed theory that some professionals (lawyers, doctors, accountants) will be left unscathed by the booming AI sector. “Our research and analysis challenges the idea that these professionals will be spared. We expect that within decades the traditional professions will be dismantled, leaving most, but not all, professionals to be replaced by less-expert people, new types of experts, and high-performing systems,” they say.

Humans have already been replaced by AI in many jobs without even us noticing (Airports, hospitals, hospitality, BPOs, manufacturing and production have already been affected by automation), but there has always been the widely accepted belief and assumption that at the end of the day, humans are irreplaceable. This belief system is cemented by the fact that AI cannot be as creative, spontaneous, judicious and empathetic as the human brain.  “The error here is not recognizing that human professionals are already being outgunned by a combination of brute processing power, big data, and remarkable algorithms. These systems do not replicate human reasoning and thinking. When systems beat the best humans at difficult games, when they predict the likely decisions of courts more accurately than lawyers, or when the probable outcomes of epidemics can be better gauged on the strength of past medical data than on medical science, we are witnessing the work of high-performing, unthinking machines, ” say the Susskinds’.

Mercedes-Benz fired its robots earlier this year and replaced them with humans because the AI couldn’t keep up with the changing pace and adaptation required by the car maker that relies on individualisation and customisation. The strong case for AI is enough to make anyone lose hope and imagine the real horror of living in the dystopian world of Spielberg’s 2001 tech-noir film Artificial Intelligence. But we aren’t there, not yet.

Curious about the Susskind report? Read more here

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