Beware, The Bots Are Coming: Are Humans A Threat?

If 2016 was the year of the cloud, big data and the pervasiveness of skills gap, 2017 has so far hinged on IoT, automation, artificial intelligence, robotics and predictive analytics. However, in entrusting our future to bots, are we being foolhardy? Should governments rein in ‘killer robots’?

The following article is based on a panel discussion during the annual CFO Conclave held between 15 and 17 September. The panellists were(L to R) Rishabh Kaul, Co-founder, Belong.co; Alok Bajpai, CFO, Netmagic; Jayant Menghani, CFO, DHL India; and Joydeep Datta, Director Finance, Sapient.
 
While technology enables us to do remarkable things, what does this imply for the workforce? Will the transition make some jobs obsolete? Will humans be replaced by bots? The topic was hot, what with two stalwarts of the IT world – Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg – taking pole positions at the opposite ends of the spectrum. The panellists got off to an interesting start and had the attendees involved and curious. 
 
“The short answer to this is – humans will never be replaced by bots. Yes, some part of what we do will certainly get automated and taken over but then we will go and do something else,” quipped Joydeep Datta, Director-Finance, Sapient.
 
Given the speed of technological disruptions, what would be the impli­cations on the level of education and skills required? Alok Bajpai, Global CFO, Netmagic answered: “There is no question of bots replacing human beings. I think our eighth idea at the Conclave – Man “or” Machine should actually be Man “and” Machine.
 
That’s what the future is going to be. Obviously rescaling is going to be a crucial factor here. The jobs are going to become more semi-skilled and skilled.” He cited Amazon as a good example of this change. “In the US, there are many cases where they have reskilled their workers, and if you talk to these workers, they are very happy with the kind of work they are doing now as compared to what they were doing earlier. The reason being roboti­sation of the work they were handling earlier.” As robots have increased in Amazon in the US by 50 per cent last year, similarly human requirement for the workforce has also gone up by 50 per cent. “It clearly shows that technol­ogy or the robotisation of the work that happens obviously brings more jobs into the economy.”
 
Jayant Menghani, CFO, Company Secretary & Director, DHL Supply Chain India Pvt Ltd added, “If I speak from a finance point of view, there would be some impact on humans. When I say humans, I refer to those accountants or those finance profes­sionals who are currently focusing on the data entry, transactional processing jobs or any kind of payroll process­ing. To put in simple words, all those finance operations/activities which are/can be standardised or which are repeti­tive in nature, would be affected. Now, it would not be restricted to finance function per se but it would extend to other activities/industries as well. In my opinion, those lower level jobs may get eradicated. That could mean some job losses as well as loss of the particu­lar band/segment in which those guys are operating. But on the other side, it also gives a new opportunity to focus on higher level jobs/areas.”
 
The key question is how fast our colleges and institutes can raise their level of education and cope up with the requirements of the times because development is happening at a much faster pace. It’s a matter of time when these new initiatives and technologies would be introduced to the market, he said.
 
Datta added: “We at Sapient do tech­nology consulting of banks and digital transformation of our clients and other companies. According to latest reports, companies, especially in the US and the UK, are spending half the amount of their dollars on digital transforma­tion as compared to other kinds of transformation. And out of this, 46 per cent is technology consulting.”
 
The traditional workplace environ­ment has changed now. Rishabh Kaul, Co-founder, Belong.co talked about the workplace environment from a millennial’s point of view: “We spend 70 per cent of our time at our workplace. In fact, most of us spend more time at the workplace than we do with our spouse or any other person for that matter. The reason why our company is called Belong.co is because we wanted to help the company find people that truly belong.” Belong.co believes people are more than the skills they pick up, their work experi­ences, or the designations they hold. Because to build anything that lasts – be it a company, a social movement or an institution – we need to connect on a level beyond all that. We are human beings with aspirations and values, not human resources.
 
Belong.co engages high-impact tal­ent through data science and predic­tive analytics. “We use a lot of machine intelligence and data science. So what we are seeing are a couple of things. One, industries seem to be converging. At some level, it feels that every com­pany today is a tech company if you look at the talent migration from one industry to another. Second, the whole talk of belongingness, the role that cul­ture is playing. It’s not just the money that people are looking for. They want some purpose or mission and I don’t think companies can continue having those old school mission statements which say we are going to increase our stakeholder value. Companies, which wish to walk the talk, can say that this is what my vision and mission stand for, and you are actually showing that in the way you are promoting your employees. I think those things will make a difference.”
 
“Third, one of the things we noticed was skills can be taught through train­ing but capabilities are something that companies are going to be looking for. Given the rate at which technology is changing, you don’t really know what you will have to pick up tomorrow. Talking about our education system, I think that universities are not at all equipped today to be able to provide skilled talent.” 

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