Sep 04, 2016

Are We Future Ready-I?

Pallavi Mody

What is in store for me in the future? The approaches to find the answer range from gazing into the crystal ball to a systematic study of the present and reasonable forecast of the future. In ‘The Industries of the Future’, Alec Ross (2016) identifies some interesting ideas whose time has come and would reach an inflexion point to drive business, societies and economies in the next 10-20 years. Among the areas identified, I am sharing my thoughts on Robotics and Advanced Life Sciences.

Japanese companies reinvented cars in the 70s, consumer electronics in the 80s and are reinventing families by including Robots as there are not enough children or grandchildren to take care of the ageing parents. Toyota and Honda are leveraging their expertise in mechanical engineering to invent the next generation of robots known as Humanoids. As the name suggests, these robots are multi-purpose home assistants – who can do dishes, clean toilets, take care of parents/children, understand human emotions and conversations and even entertain! What is more interesting is that these Robots are not standalone mechanical devices but would also learn new abilities as they would be networked devices which download (learn) new skills. I am reminded of Aamir Khan’s character from outer space in the movie PK who learnt (downloaded) a language by holding hands for a few hours!

Google’s driverless cars running on trial basis belong to the same genre. Robots replaced factory workers in repetitive jobs in automobile assembly lines a long time ago but this time around the fear is that the Robots would replace people in services- drivers, waiters in restaurants, airport ground handling staff, cleaning staff in homes/offices/public places… the list could be long and frightening.

It may be music to the ears of the patients and their families to hear the innovation in the area of Advanced Life Science based on mapping of the Human Genome through DNA Sequencing. It would not only identify the errant gene that causes the disease but also makes it possible to harvest the organs for transplant like heart, livers and kidneys from pigs by modifying pig genomes.

With scientific breakthroughs, it would be also possible to produce designer babies. Would people choose desired qualities like fair skin, brown hair and blue eyes in their children? Would people be satisfied with looks alone or ask for programming the mental and emotional make up in the form of desired levels of IQ, EQ & SQ? Genetic mapping would be able to predict the genetic makeup and thereby the future health conditions in a person’s life. Will societies be able to handle the stress of knowing the future health conditions of their near and dear ones? I am once again reminded of the situation similar to Sahdev of Mahabharat who knew the future but could not do anything about it.

The economic returns of innovations in the past 10-20 years have been unevenly distributed between those who were well positioned to create or adapt to the new breakthroughs and those who were left behind. The last wave of innovation and globalization produced winners and losers. One group of winners was the investors, entrepreneurs, and high-skilled labourers that congregated around fast-growing markets and new inventions. Another class of winners was more than 1 billion people from China and India who moved from poverty into the middle class as they could benefit from labor arbitrage. The losers were people who lived in high-cost labour markets like the United States and Europe whose skills could not keep up with the pace of technological change and globalising markets.

Who would be the winners and losers for the next wave of innovations with Robotics? The workers on the shop floor moved from blue collar factory jobs to driving taxis and trucks. Large numbers of immigrants from poor countries drive taxis in US and UK. With Google’s driverless cars, where do these people go? Most students work in restaurants as their first part time job to pay their tuition fees even in the developed world. If the tables are attended by Humanoids, what is the alternative job avenue for tomorrow’s students? What would happen to the India Story which rests on the concept of demographic dividend and thinks that the young population would lead country into the 21st century?

Probably similar and many more doubts about the future were raised when automation came and manual jobs were lost. But if we look at history, many more new jobs were also created. The next round of innovations would require a new set of skills to be winners. In a free market economy, where innovation is the name of the game, what one can do to be future ready is plain and simple – ‘adapt’.

Perhaps, we would all do well to remember the quote:

‘Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative’ – H.G. Wells (1922)

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