Updated: May 18, 2020 10:03:39 pm
Written by Seuj Saikia
Rabindranath Tagore once said, “Faith is the bird that feels the light when the dawn is still dark”. The darkness that looms over the world at this moment is the curse of the COVID-19 pandemic, while the bird of human freedom finds itself caged under lockdown, unable to fly. Enthused by the beacon of hope, human beings will soon start picking up the pieces of a shared future for humanity, but perhaps, it will only be to find a new, unfamiliar world order with far-reaching consequences for us that transcend society, politics and economy.
Crucially, a technology that had till now been crawling — or at best, walking slowly — will now start sprinting. In fact, a paradigm shift in the economic relationship of mankind is going to be witnessed in the form of accelerated adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies in the modes of production of goods and services. A fourth Industrial Revolution — as the AI-era is referred to — has already been experienced before the pandemic with the backward linkages of cloud computing and big data. However, the imperative of continued social distancing has made an AI-driven economic world order today’s reality.
Setting aside the oft-discussed prophecies of the Robo-Human tussle, even if we simply focus on the present pandemic context, we will see millions of students accessing their education through ed-tech apps, mothers buying groceries on apps too and making cashless payments through fintech platforms, and employees attending video conferences on relevant apps as well: All this isn’t new phenomena, but the scale at which they are happening is unparalleled in human history. The alternate universe of AI, machine learning, cloud computing, big data, 5G and automation is getting closer to us every day. And so is a clash between humans (labour) and robots (plant and machinery).
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This “clash” might very well be fuelled by automation. Any Luddite will recall the misadventures of the 19th-century textile mills. However, the automation that we are talking about now is founded on the citadel of artificially intelligent robots. Eventually, this might merge the two factors of production into one, thereby making labour irrelevant. As factories around the world start to reboot post COVID-19, there will be hard realities to contend with: Shortage of migrant labourers in the entire gamut of the supply chain, variations of social distancing induced by the fears of a second virus wave and the overall health concerns of humans at work. All this combined could end up sparking the fire of automation, resulting in subsequent job losses and possible reallocation/reskilling of human resources.
In this context, a potential counter to such employment upheavals is the idea of cash transfers to the population in the form of Universal Basic Income (UBI). As drastic changes in the production processes lead to a more cost-effective and efficient modern industrial landscape, the surplus revenue that is subsequently earned by the state would act as a major source of funds required by the government to run UBI. Variants of basic income transfer schemes have existed for a long time and have been deployed to unprecedented levels during this pandemic. Keynesian macroeconomic measures are increasingly being seen as the antidote to the bedridden economies around the world, suffering from near-recession due to the sudden ban on economic activities. Governments would have to be innovative enough to pump liquidity into the system to boost demand without harming the fiscal discipline. But what separates UBI from all these is its universality, while others remain targeted.
This new economic world order would widen the cracks of existing geopolitical fault lines — particularly between US and China, two behemoths of the AI realm. Datanomics has taken such a high place in the valuation spectre that the most valued companies of the world are the tech giants like Apple, Google, Facebook, Alibaba, Tencent etc. Interestingly, they are also the ones who are at the forefront of AI innovations. Data has become the new oil. What transports data are not pipelines but fibre optic cables and associated communication technologies. The ongoing fight over the introduction of 5G technology — central to automation and remote command-control architecture — might see a new phase of hostility, especially after the controversial role played by the secretive Chinese state in the COVID-19 crisis.
The issues affecting common citizens — privacy, national security, rising inequality — will take on newer dimensions. It is pertinent to mention that AI is not all bad: As an imperative change that the human civilisation is going to experience, it has its advantages. Take the COVID-19 crisis as an example. Amidst all the chaos, big data has enabled countries to do contact tracing effectively, and 3D printers produced the much-needed PPEs at local levels in the absence of the usual supply chains. That is why the World Economic Forum (WEF) argues that agility, scalability and automation will be the buzzwords for this new era of business, and those who have these capabilities will be the winners.
But there are losers in this, too. In this case, the developing world would be the biggest loser. The problem of inequality, which has already reached epic proportions, could be further worsened in an AI-driven economic order. The need of the hour is to prepare ourselves and develop strategies that would mitigate such risks and avert any impending humanitarian disaster. To do so, in the words of computer scientist and entrepreneur Kai-Fu Lee, the author of AI Superpowers, we have to give centrality to our heart and focus on the care economy which is largely unaccounted for in the national narrative.
(The writer is assistant commissioner of income tax, IRS. Views are personal)
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