In the 19th century, London was the centre of the civilised world. As the beating heart of the British Empire, it was a magnet for immigrants, and that century, it’s population grew from just over a million people to close to 7 million. And as a result, London became one of the largest cities on the planet—and humanity’s first real taste of urbanisation. Horse carriages were the most common mode of transport, equivalent to what cars are today. The average draft horse produces 10kg of manure per day. As a result, the city of London was generating over 20,000kg of horse dung every month. In 1894, the Times of London predicted that within 50 years, every street in London would be buried under 9 feet of manure. New York had a similar problem. But by the early 1900s, it was cheaper to own a motor vehicle than a horse-drawn carriage and economics eventually ensured that horses were no longer central to the urban transport equation. In just over a decade the number of cars sold in the US rose from 4,192 per year in 1900 to 356,000 in 1912. By 1917, the last horse-drawn streetcars in New York had been retired. What was once thought to be an insurmountable threat to humanity’s existence vanished in little over a decade. This is an excellent example of how any prediction about the future tells us more about the current time than the future itself.
The Impact of Automation
We hear a similar prediction of doom in the press today. With advances in the field of automation and artificial intelligence, people are speculating about how it will affect humanity. One popular opinion is that machines would take jobs away from humans and will leave them redundant in the future. The truth is that AI, ML and automation are simply tools we can use to increase efficiency and gain accuracy. Automation is no different from any other tool invented in the past. Human hands weren’t left useless after the invention of spoon and fork, and eyesight did not become superfluous after the invention of binoculars and the telescope. Instead, these tools helped us in broadening the spectrum of what we can do and achieve. Similarly, automation and artificial intelligence can help us accomplish incredible feats in every sector of our life. Machines may take over some specific jobs, but it would be naive to think that they’ll completely replace us.
The Future of Work
In the late 1990s, computers were becoming mainstream and were impacting practically every sector of the market, raising concerns about possible job loss. As we can now see, computers created more new jobs than they replaced. In India alone as of 2016, the IT industry, directly and indirectly, employed around 20 million people. Current estimates put it upward of 30 million. According to industry analyst Gartner, the size of the worldwide software industry in 2013 was US$407.3 billion. It is the highest-paid sector in India with the median gross hourly salary pegged at Rs 346.42. For the BFSI sector, it is R300.23. According to CODE.ORG, in the USA alone, there will be a requirement of around 1.4 million computer engineers in the next 10years, but only 400,000 will graduate over that period. This means that there will be a shortage of a million people! Just like any other technology, RPA will take roles previously done by humans, but it’ll also create a slew of new jobs. RPA would take care of mundane tasks and will allow us to do more creative and intellectual work which current systems can’t. A bot can not challenge the versatility of a human mind. Potentially in the future, this may happen, but at present, we can beat any AI hands down. Humans have designed each bot for a specific purpose. It may outperform a human in this task; however, we are a long way from creating a bot that can do all that we can do. Cognitive RPA tools incorporate AI technology, but there is a limit to its exception handling capability. In many cases, RPA uses attended bots that work alongside humans to automate one component of the overall process. They help to accelerate the work but cannot complete the end-to-end process. These limits further establish that humans are still very much relevant. Change of role is not loss of job. We’ll do the thinking, and they’ll do the grunt work!