How India can harness 'globotics' revolution in artificial intelligence

Robotic shopping assistant AP A robotic shopping assistant interacting with shoppers at a GIANT supermarket in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania | AP

The revolutionary development in artificial intelligence and machine learning, and its dramatic consequences, is a global economic upheaval and one that will both provide opportunities for and challenge India dramatically.

Discussing India's response to this global upheaval, Martin Wolf, associate editor and chief economics commentator, Financial Times, London, said, “India needs to devote careful thought to the domestic implications of the revolution in artificial intelligence.” He explained, “As a country with a growing population and labour force and huge employment in services, the implications might be very radical, both creating and destroying opportunities on a massive scale.”

Wolf , who delivered the seventh NCAER CD Deshmukh Memorial Lecture 2019 in New Delhi on Tuesday, spoke on the theme of Challenges for India from the Global Economic Upheavals. The other upheavals he addressed were the rapid economic rise of Asia, the strategic rivalry between the US and China, growing protectionism in the US and the associated erosion of the liberal global economic order and the threat of climate change.

Wolf, who has many times described India as a “premature superpower”, summed up his arguments, saying that all these global upheavals will have profound implications for India as “they alter the environment in which it [India] hopes to develop, they demand substantial and far-sighted domestic responses and they will force it to clarify its global stance.”

India, in his view, was too vulnerable to ignore the changing global realities. “Indeed, it must not only respond to them, but seek to influence them. This is the necessary response for a developing country that will, if it continues to advance successfully, become one of the world's greatest powers,” argued Wolf.

Talking of the “globotics revolution”, Wolf said, opportunities will be created on the international stage, and these will include what Professor Richard Baldwin of the Geneva-based Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies described as “telemigration”.

Referring to Baldwin, a leading authority on the economics of globalisation, Wolf said he had "discussed something he hideously calls globotics upheaval", which is “much more tentative and much less certain”.

The core idea of Baldwin's famous book (The Globotics Upheaval: Globalisation, Robotics and the Future of Work) is that this new revolution is about to do to worldwide services what the old information revolution did to manufacturing, that it would facilitate offshoring while simultaneously destroying an enormous number of jobs. Because the services sector is far bigger—in terms of employment and output—than manufacturing, the impact of this new revolution will be far greater, he argues, than the previous information technology revolution.

Wolf concurs that this globotics revolution will potentially cause an upheaval on the scale of the industrial revolution. According to him, the globotics revolution is likely to transform, over time, the division of labour and employment opportunities within countries and across the globe. And Wolf's view was it would take “not necessarily that much time”—implying the effect may be very, very soon. Neither process will be easy to manage: standard instruments of protection do not work for the movement of bits across the internet.

“This revolution, therefore, seems as irresistible as it will be destabilising. The jobs of an enormous number of white collar workers around the globe, and especially of relatively high-paid white collar workers in high income countries, are likely to come under threat. The social impact will be huge and the political backlash correspondingly dramatic,” says Wolf.

Wolf, however, sees the impact of this revolution as being two-fold: Improvements in technology will make it far easier to collaborate at a distance—people who are not physically present will be able to participate much more fully in collaborative work, principally as a result of improvements in virtual reality.

Secondly, language will be no barrier. Wolf quoted Baldwin further to say that a quarter of online freelancers are Indians and another quarter are from Bangladesh and Pakistan. “Baldwin also adds that the extraordinary improvements in machine translation will make it quite possible for people who do not know English, or any other language, to participate in such work,” explained Wolf. In the early part of his lecture, Wolf had Google render a perfect translation into Hindi of US President Donald Trump's quote “Protectionism will lead to great prosperity and strength”!

Improved opportunities for what Baldwin calls “telemigration” should be of great importance for India. Many activities that currently require physical presence abroad may soon be deliverable from India itself. It is a set of opportunities that India needs to exploit. Securing the highest possible standard of broadband access for all will be an essential part of this.

But many tasks now carried out by people—research into documents, examination of test results, scans, writing reports and so forth—will be done by AI systems. Indeed, many forms of pattern recognition are done far better by machines than by people and the advantage of the latter is likely to grow rapidly as both software and hardware improve.

Wolf, according to Dr Shekhar Shah, director-general of the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER), had “the ability to look at India from outside but with affection” as he had worked as an economist on India at the World Bank, from 1974 to 77.

Wolf is of the view that the Central and state governments will need to “devote a lot of thought to how this revolution is likely to affect job opportunities and the labour market, and how, in turn, the country can manage these challenges. These are likely to be very large and potentially very disruptive.”