The 20th century’s Industrial Age was characterised by the rise of the working class. As they bought cars, fridges and washing machines, their quality of life improved and economies grew. Millions of new jobs that didn’t exist earlier kept nations thrumming.
Will the 21st century herald the rise of the non-working class?
The confluence of big data, artificial intelligence, machine learning, digitalisation and algorithms is about to unleash a storm to overhaul future job markets. The storm is inevitable, but experts debate on its consequences—will it trigger a vicious or virtuous cycle that will take humankind to another level? In his compelling new book Homo Deus, author Yuval Noah Harari says, “Human beings are becoming militarily and economically useless.”
Jobless growth defines modern economies. Narendra Modi and Donald Trump talk of creating jobs, but in the agricultural, manufacturing and service sectors, millions of jobs are being shed. Yet, more and more goods are being produced, GDP is growing, trade is increasing; so who is doing all the work? The answer: not just robots, but algorithms are increasingly stealing jobs from humans. In a recent experiment in the United States, computer algorithms diagnosed lung cancer in 90 per cent of the patients. The success rate of the oncologists was 50 per cent. One reason for the better score is that the computer assesses in seconds, vast amounts of data of patients with similar symptoms, which is beyond human capacity. Computer programs are faster and smarter because of their superior processing capability. And cheaper, because they need no salaries or benefits.
Venture capitalists have already started appointing algorithms to their boards. Along with other members, the algorithm votes to decide whether to invest in a company or not. Its track record is outstanding, because it can meticulously synthesise huge amounts of data. Interestingly, it has preferred to invest in companies that also have algorithms on their boards.
Of course, you need a few managers and specialists at the top to supervise or take decisions, but the vast army of human workers and professionals can be replaced. We comfort ourselves saying boring, repetitive work should be done by robots and algorithms, and nothing can replace human creativity. But we could be in for a surprise. David Cope, an American musicologist, wrote a computer program that composes symphonies. It took seven years to create the program, but once completed, it composed 5,000 Bach-like compositions in a single day. When a disbelieving, discerning audience was presented with real Bach and computer-Bach compositions, most judged the latter to be real.
In the past, old jobs gave way to new. When cars were invented, horse-drawn carriage drivers became taxi drivers. But what happens with self-driving cars? This is great for ageing societies with falling birth rates, but what about India where millions enter the job market every year? How will the non-working class earn? The universal basic income—where the government provides a monthly pay to citizens, hasn’t gained traction even in rich countries.
If algorithms increasingly run the world, then we need humans to create them, right? Not really. With machine learning and artificial neural networks, algorithms themselves are creating faster and more sophisticated algorithms. The rule is simple: more data, better algorithms. With the arrival of the “internet of things”, not just smartphones, but fridges, cars and music systems contribute to an omnipotent ‘big data’ that is recording everyone, everything, everywhere, in real time. This is bigger than George Orwell’s “Big Brother”; it could be a new religion. ‘Big data’ could be the new God and the smartphone its temple. And instead of prayer beads, humans texting ‘big data’ to give us today our daily bread.
Pratap is an author and journalist.