Risks and Benefits of Artificial Intelligence for India’s Employment and Agrarian Economy

Artificial intelligence, robots, 3-D printing, the Internet of Things, nanotechnology, and automation are the most recent technological breakthroughs. These changes are altering the quality and shape of our lives, as well as our economies and futures, all across the world. India, of course, is no exception to this trend. India needs immediate action to address the impact of artificial intelligence on job loss and, as a result, employment. At the same time, creating jobs to compensate for job losses is a major concern. While job loss is a concern, AI has the potential to help India’s agriculture, which is beset by issues such as the migration of farm labourers and farmers to urban regions.

World Economic Forum’s predictions on Future of Jobs in India

In a 2016 report on the future of Jobs that includes India also by the World Economic Forum, it was said, “overall, our respondents seem to take a negative view regarding the upcoming employment impact of artificial intelligence, although not on a scale that would lead to widespread societal upheaval—at least up until the year 2020”. However, according to this report, strong employment growth is expected in Engineering, Architecture, Mathematics, and Computer jobs, and a decline in production and manufacturing jobs moderately, and in Office and Administration jobs a significant decline.

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The report further states “the artificial intelligence and machine learning driver is expected to lead to negative employment outcomes in job families such as Education and Training, Legal and Business and Financial Operations. However, it appears our respondents do not believe that these technologies will have advanced significantly enough by the year 2020 to have a more widespread impact on global employment levels.

Contrasting claims in Artificial Intelligence Perils

Foxconn, the Taiwanese manufacturer of consumer electronics, was in the news in March 2016, when it eliminated 60,000 jobs in a single factory applying artificial intelligence and automation to reap financial and non-financial benefits. This highlights how artificial intelligence and its physical manifestation in the form of advanced robotics affect the global workforce. Automation can systematically eliminate the lower level, repetitive, and often dangerous tasks that have created employment for the poor, particularly in developing countries like China and India.

Darrell M. West of the Brookings Center of Technology Innovation wrote a report on October 26, 2015, titled “What Happens if Robots Take the Jobs? The Impact of Emerging Technologies on Employment and Public Policy”. He noted, “One business leader I know had 500 workers for his $100 million business and now has the same size workforce even though the company has grown to $250 million in revenues,” West wrote, “He did this by automating certain functions and using robots and advanced manufacturing techniques to operate the firm.” It means despite using robots no jobs were lost, though no new jobs were created, and gained financially and non financially. This can be seen as a positive of artificial intelligence applications in business. This was in contrast to the Foxconn experience.

The above two real-time instances are contrasting to each other regarding artificial intelligence perils. In the context of the Indian job market, despite the perils, the focus so far is not directed to build AI-related skills.

Creation of New Jobs

It may not be as gloomy as we perceive as not all is lost on the jobs front since automation and AI need not eliminate jobs but also can retain the existing jobs and also create new jobs. For example, going online or using mobile, one can order his snacks that are delivered to his doorsteps by a delivery boy. It means a creation of a new kind of unskilled job that was not there earlier. Imagine, there can be thousands and thousands of such jobs created because of automation. Artificial intelligence can cut deep into mostly traditional white-collar jobs, mundane jobs, and traditional manufacturing jobs.

According to a recent UN report, two-thirds of all skilled jobs can be lost in developing nations like India because of industrial robots and artificial intelligence applications. Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO reassured during one of his visits to India that “a lot of artificial intelligence, real intelligence will be scarce, real empathy will be scarce, real common sense will be scarce. So, we can have new jobs that are predicated on those attributes.” According to him, India being a service-oriented employment generated economy, artificial intelligence may not affect employment much in India. It looks more positive attitude on his part, as artificial intelligence can displace a tiny portion of jobs as about only thirty percent of Indians are employed in services. Traditionally Indian IT is service oriented.

Honing AI-ready skills through education and training

It is inevitable for India to take notice of the artificial intelligence advances in our economy too. Gearing up for infrastructure ready to adopt artificial intelligence, and hone AI based skills and jobs are the need of the hour. The training institutes and other academic institutions in India need to tailor their learning programs tailored to suit AI specific skills.

There is a need for a shift in today’s sequential education system to suit the emerging economic environment, and skills needed to suit rapidly changing job scenarios. This is an important challenge for policymakers in India. Policymakers need to drive AI innovation in all sectors leading to “Make in India”, “Skill India”, and “Digital India”, the flagship programs envisaged by the Prime Minister of India, apart from IT services and consumer goods field.

On the education front, there is an urgent need to evolve alternative models to best suit AI enabled future. AI is capable of making a significant contribution in detecting frauds related to taxes and financial nature, misuse of subsidies, and identifying nongenuine beneficiaries for social benefit programs.

Sills India initiative is envisaged to enhance human capital utilization at the national level, while the Make in India initiative is trying to attract global manufacturers to set up their shops in India. The Digital India initiative is striving to turn both rural India and urban India to adapt to make all services, transactions accessible in digital form for a stronger economy with fewer frauds. Artificial Intelligence can have a direct impact on the flagship programs of the Prime Minister.

Creation of AI-based infrastructure in India

Artificial Intelligence is propelled by cloud-based computing, big data analysis, and superior computer-related hardware, and caused significant improvement in machine learning performance, where computers can learn and perform without explicitly programmed. The significant developments in machine learning led to many techniques such as unsupervised learning, supervised learning, reinforcement learning. In turn, these applications led to complex architectures like deep neural networks or deep learning. Recent innovations like AlphaGo computers, Apples’ Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana are based on one or the other of these technologies. None of these is a part of the AI revolution in India. This was neglected by both policymakers and commercial establishments, Indian academics, entrepreneurs, and research laboratories in India.

Again, cloud-based computing needs a large infrastructure for storing massive data for processing by AI. This infrastructure largely resides in the servers based out of India like Amazon Web Services and Google machine learning infrastructure that makes AI accessible for enterprises. Equally important is the identity of the corporations researching this area. Many of the tops AI companies are Japanese, and non from India.

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The absence of such infrastructure in India sets AI advances out of reach for government funded research and other important programs of national interest. This also renders reluctance on the part of government machinery and many industries in India to store their data on servers located out of India which can be accessed by algorithms by any vested interests over which Indian industry or government have no control. This is a critical infrastructure need for India to progress with AI technology. Once this infrastructure is built within the country, it can lead to many jobs creation.

Frank Levy, an emeritus professor of Massachusetts Institute of Technology in his article “The Future of Work: The Three Dimensions of Artificial Intelligence,” written for Pacific Standard magazine, October 2, 2015, dismissed that robots can dislocate many jobs. He opines the greater concern can be AI impact on middle-skill category jobs like clerical works, line workers in assembly, and the like. He feels that automation can also affect the upward mobility of an individual and the multiplication of jobs. Levy makes it clear that upskilling through education is going to be critical for competitiveness in the evolving Market.

Artificial Intelligence can boost Indian Agrarian Economy

Artificial intelligence can help smart production, processing, storage, and distribution. AI solutions can generate timely and site-specific crop data to help appropriate applications of fertilizers and pesticides application to boost production. Agricultural drones help in the collection of a wealth of data on information involving crops, livestock, seeds, soil, costs, water and fertilizer application to farms, and farm equipment usage. Advanced big data analytics with IoT technologies help analyze weather, moisture, temperature, GPS signals, and prices in real-time providing insights. These insights can be useful to increase and optimize yield, planning in farm improvement, resources planning to avoid wastage. Artificial intelligence can boost efficiency and productivity with precision agriculture. Agricultural drones are already helping in scanning fields, monitoring crops, seeding, and analyzing crop health.

In the 2014 UN report on “World Urbanization Prospects”, 66% of the population slated to live in urban areas by 2050 leading to fewer workforces in the rural places. Technologies using cognitive computing can help in easing farmer’s work, eliminating the need for large farm laborers’ work on the farm. Artificial intelligence automates many processes, does many farm operations remotely, and identifies risks, and eliminates them before they happen. In the future, this type of technology coupled with the right agricultural skills can drive agricultural production easing the farmers’ labor needs.

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Source: IBM

Cognitive computing in agriculture helps determine the best choices for selecting crops and choices in selecting hybrid seeds to better suit the farmer’s choice and condition of his farm soil types. Farmers can be in a better position to maximize their returns on investment by correlating weather information, seeds type, soil type, occurrence of infestation in an area, plant diseases probability, historical data analysis to know what worked best previously, yearly outcomes, trends in the marketplace, needs of consumers and prices. However, it is too early to say Chatbots can also help farmers answer their questions with recommendations and advice and on particular farm problems. Chatbots use artificial intelligence and techniques concerning machine learning.

Artificial neural networks can estimate soil water retention from easily measurable data. Machine Learning can indicate the influence of monsoon rainfall and some of its potential predictors on the yield of crop prediction using an artificial neural network approach. Artificial intelligence can forecast long-term regional drought and groundwater storage estimation. Efficient techniques can be developed and tailored for solving complex agricultural problems using data mining.

Not all jobs are equally at risk

Not all jobs are equally at risk from the pending revolution in artificial intelligence. The least at-risk jobs are those that require creativity, human interaction, and an understanding of how to learn about human beings or social intelligence. This includes most jobs in the health care, education, and managerial fields. In contrast, the jobs that are most at risk are those that entail data collection, data processing, and predictable physical work. In their landmark study, “Where machines could replace humans—and where they can’t (yet),” McKinsey’s Michael Chui, James Manyika, and Mehdi Miremadi articulate a clear methodology for understanding the jobs that are most at risk from automation.

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It should be noted that even within the category of physical labor, not all jobs are at risk as the critical factor is “predictability.” The more unpredictable the work, the more it requires higher level skills that artificial intelligence and automation cannot be trusted to replicate.

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This means that upskilling the workforce will be of paramount importance even in professions like construction that are not associated with high skill in the public imagination. Likewise, while machines are adept at the collection and processing of data, the interpretation of it usually requires experience and a capacity for contextualization that only human beings possess.

Cross-cutting impacts of artificial intelligence and automation

Aside from lost jobs, what will be the consequences of the cross-cutting impacts of artificial intelligence and automation? Less employment income will mean less revenue for governments which will have to find alternative means of financing public services. Higher taxes on those who reap the benefits of the deployment of capital-intensive technologies may be required to finance the educational upgrading needed by the general population whose employment has been displaced. This process of educational upgrading will be a continuous, lifelong one instead of just four years in college so online education will be of paramount importance since it can be the most widely disseminated and rapidly adjusted to meet ever-changing market demands. Until society can understand and develop the political will to adapt to the new realities engendered by artificial intelligence and automation, poverty levels will rise and social unrest along with it. This will be especially true in developing countries like India where the loss of manufacturing jobs and the slowing of economic growth is inhibiting the entry of many of its citizens to the middle class.

Positives of the advent of AI and automation

It should be noted that the advent of AI and automation will have immensely positive benefits as well. Careers in Big Data, Information Technology, and Robotics are set to boom:

Data scientists and other professionals with backgrounds in operations research will be required to help managers get the most out of these new technologies. Managers will have to learn how to reconfigure their organizations to new economic realities as well as understand the data gathered by AI, sensors, and related devices so that they can formulate and execute sound strategies for their enterprises.

Conclusion: Lessons for India to learn

As reported by the World Economic Forum report of 2016, the negative impact of artificial intelligence on employment may not happen on a scale “at least up until the year 2020”. Public servants in India need to be trained in what AI and automation mean for fiscal policy, agrarian economy, and economic development strategies. Most of all, workers need to be retrained so that they can be employable in an increasingly technical workplace wherein creativity and the irreplaceable qualities that make us intrinsically human are ironically more important than ever. This is possible through upskilling skills by all through training and education continuously.


  • Ram

    Ram, the author of "Business Development: Perspectives" on Amazon Kindle, has a wealth of experience in business development across multiple industries. He has over 30 years of experience in commodities, FMCG, and software industries, and has held various leadership positions in these sectors. In the commodities and FMCG industries, Ram served as GM of Business Development for southern India, where he successfully established new businesses and expanded existing ones. In the software industry, he was Regional Director of Business Development for Asia, where he was responsible for expanding the company's presence in the region. Ram has a proven track record of turning around loss-making ventures and establishing successful businesses. Ram has also served as the Director of Industry Partnerships and IT Blog editor at a software company, showcasing his expertise in technology and industry partnerships.

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