Fourth Industrial Revolution: Machine efficiency versus human creativity

Syed Tashfin Chowdhury | Published: March 12, 2019 22:08:48 | Updated: March 12, 2019 22:11:14

There is no doubt that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is already at our doors. Artificial intelligence and automation are gradually but steadily moving into industries and service sectors of developed economies. It is only a matter of time before this makes its way into the developing and least developed economies as well. Like in the previous industrial revolutions, there is a general concern that the issue is likely to render a bulk of the workforce jobless across the globe.

Refuting this fear, some optimistic economists, human resource professionals and scientists are of the view that like the previous industrial revolutions, this will also lead to the creation of new kinds of jobs and ensure greater economic growth for countries. But such hope has done little to dispel the fears and frustrations over automation and artificial intelligence. Automation has been blamed as the primary reason behind loss of jobs in industries and services sectors in the developed and developing countries over the past seven to eight years. According to Forrester, till last year, around 13.8 million jobs were lost to automation in the USA alone.

Adding more fuel to the fire are forecasts by other research organisations. McKinsey Global Institute, for example, forecast that the rapid evolution of artificial intelligence and robots will lead to the loss of 73 million jobs in the UDA, 236 million jobs in China and 120 million in India by 2030. Japan would be burdened with 30 million displaced workers, Mexico 18 million and Germany 17 million during the same time.

The jobs most vulnerable to automation tend to be physical positions in predictable environments. Examples include people working in the fast food trade, construction, cleaning, driving, agricultural labour, garment manufacturing, personal service, healthcare etc. The positions safer from automation include managers, engineers, scientists, teachers etc.

A different group of experts have reasoned that the rapid evolution of automation and artificial intelligence, or the Fourth Industrial Revolution, may not be as big a threat as it is being dreaded.

The First Industrial Revolution, which began in Britain around the 18th century, saw the use of water and steam power to mechanise production. The Second Industrial Revolution (IR) began around the late 19th century and continued till mid 1920s. It saw the use of electric power to pave the way for mass production in industries. The Third Industrial Revolution from 1969 saw the unprecedented use of nuclear technology, rise of electronics and biotechnology. The Third Industrial Revolution also saw electronics and information technology being used to automate production. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is a continuation of the third as it is a fusion of technologies that is connecting the physical, digital and biological worlds.

Klaus Schwab, Founder of World Economic Forum, wrote in 2016, "Like the revolutions that preceded it, the Fourth Industrial Revolution has the potential to raise global income levels and improve the quality of life for populations around the world. To date, those who have gained the most from it have been consumers able to afford and access the digital world; technology has made possible new products and services that increase the efficiency and pleasure of our personal lives... In the future, technological innovation will also lead to a supply-side miracle, with long-term gains in efficiency and productivity. Transportation and communication costs will drop, logistics and global supply chains will become more effective, and the cost of trade will diminish, all of which will open new markets and drive economic growth."

Some optimistic economists have pointed out that the economic growth resulting from the 4IR will lead to the creation of new jobs. An often visited scenario is the situation of bank tellers, who were insecure during the launch of automated-teller machines in the USA around the mid-1960s. They were dreading that they will become jobless. But the convenience of ATMs actually bought a large number of new customers to the banking sector, leading to creation of new jobs and new departments in banks like due diligence, anti-money laundering, corporate affairs etc.

Another answer from technological experts to the growing automation anxiety has pointed at what is called the 'human cloud' and the way it works. An increasing number of professionals are providing digital services online through human cloud. These services are being offered to clients in other countries by professionals located in another continent. Their only connection is through some virtual platforms on the internet.

Still, economists Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee are apprehensive that the 4IR could "yield greater inequality, particularly in its potential to disrupt labour markets".

To assuage these opinions, most human resource professionals have pointed to the kind of jobs which will be at risk due to automation and artificial intelligence. The jobs at risk are those that require less skills and education. These are also the jobs that are involved with routine tasks.

As a result, it is being recommended by experts that future generations should be open to constantly using their creativity and be in jobs that require creativity. Human creativity is the only thing that robots cannot replicate.

Creativity in the workplace can be broken down into curiosity, conflict and ingenuity. Human resource professionals and psychologists have explained that employees in an organisation can only learn to reset their skills through curiosity to learn new things. They can hone their skills when faced with problems or conflict in the workplace. The combination of curiosity and conflict will lead to ingenuity where the employee will be able to come up with innovative solutions and processes in the workplace. This is the kind of professionals that will be less likely to lose jobs in an automated world.

More or less, the same solution was prescribed by Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, during the World Economic Forum of 2018. He said, "If we do not change the way we teach, 30 years from now we'll be in trouble. The things we teach our children are things from the past 200 years -- it's knowledge-based. And we cannot teach our kids to compete with machines, they are smarter".

He stressed that children should be taught qualities like "independent thinking, teamwork, and care for others". These will not just set these students apart, but ensure that they are valuable contributors to the society in ways that make them irreplaceable.

While these mindsets and qualities can help the employees and professionals of the future, professionals from the present can retain their position in the job market through constant learning and retraining in new processes and skills required in the sectors that they are engaged in.

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