The AI wave: Adapting India’s workforce

Policymaking, investment and training are key to balance the potential benefits of AI-driven job creation against the larger threat of workforce displacement
Last Updated 02 March 2024, 22:56 IST

In the annals of human history, each of the previous industrial revolutions has heralded seismic shifts in societies and nations, reshaping markets and altering the very fabric of existence. However, with the advent of artificial intelligence (AI), a culmination of seven decades of development and incubation, we stand witness to a transformation of unparalleled magnitude and velocity. The impact of AI is not only profound but also seemingly unpredictable, giving rise to two distinct camps: One characterised by unbridled optimism and the other by profound apprehension.

The exponential growth of AI is poised to usher in sweeping transformations across social, political, economic and military domains, underscoring the urgent need for meticulous preparedness.

This reality is particularly pertinent for India, given its sizeable young population. 

As the adoption of AI accelerates in businesses, it is prudent to harbour a degree of paranoia regarding the potential for job losses. History has shown that every industrial revolution precipitated significant shifts in social and human skill requirements. While optimism abounds regarding humanity’s ability to adapt and thrive amidst the onslaught of AI and rapid technological advancements, a pragmatic approach dictates preparing for the inevitable demand for newer skill sets. 

Businesses, driven by profit motives, are inclined to leverage technology to streamline operations, reduce costs and enhance efficiency, ultimately bolstering their bottom line. The inexorable pursuit of profitability underscores the need for individuals to proactively anticipate and acquire the skills necessary to remain relevant in an increasingly automated and competitive landscape.

The discourse surrounding AI often oscillates between the promise of innovation and the large-scale job displacement. While fears of automation eroding traditional employment persist, one should recognise the concomitant surge in demand for AI-related roles.

In India, where unemployment remains a critical issue, policymakers are faced with the challenge of balancing the potential benefits of AI-driven job creation against the larger near-future threat of workforce displacement. As automation gradually replaces human labour in different sectors, we should observe the nature of emerging job roles and devise strategic policies to prepare the workforce for the impending AI revolution.

For example, there are concerns in sectors like agriculture, where technology is replacing the need for labour. But then, we should be candid enough to accept that our farm productivity is low, and can do with improving output and quality. Embracing precision agriculture techniques, leveraging data analytics and deploying AI-driven solutions can optimise resource utilisation, minimise environmental impact and enhance crop yields. 

Moreover, initiatives aimed at reskilling and upskilling agricultural workers to leverage technology effectively can facilitate a smooth transition towards a more technology-driven agricultural sector.

We need to understand where we can utilise AI for betterment of outcomes for the nation.

The breakneck pace of AI development and the emergence of commercial outcomes leave governments and businesses with little room to predict what may come next and when. This uncertainty significantly impacts the planning of reskilling initiatives for the population, including determining which skills will be needed and by what time. As traditional roles evolve and new AI-related job opportunities surface, ensuring the workforce’s preparedness to seize these prospects will test our skilling systems.

To bridge the skill gap and facilitate a smooth transition, comprehensive upskilling measures are essential. These measures should encompass continuous tailored training programmes, vocational courses, and professional development initiatives aimed at equipping individuals with proficiency in AI technologies, data analysis, machine learning and other relevant domains. 

However, India’s preparedness vis-à-vis AI is confronted by multifaceted challenges. Lacunae in the education system, characterised by outdated or weak STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) curricula and inadequate teacher training programmes, pose a formidable impediment. Addressing these systemic deficiencies demands a paradigm shift in educational policies and resource allocation, aimed at nurturing a cohort of professionals adept at harnessing AI’s transformative potential.

Furthermore, India’s research and development expenditure pales in comparison to developed economies, undermining its capacity for innovation and technological breakthroughs. To assert its prominence on the global stage, India must prioritise bolstering its STEM ecosystem, augmenting research capabilities and fostering a conducive environment for indigenous talent to thrive.

Technological parity

Crucially, India’s nascent foray into AI is compounded by glaring infrastructural deficits, including limited access to specialised computing and storage facilities essential for AI development. Bridging this technological chasm necessitates concerted investments in cloud computing infrastructure, thereby laying the groundwork for scalable AI solutions. India finds itself lagging behind global leaders like China and the US in AI and related technologies. The absence of significant investments in AI chip hardware design and the dearth of audited datasets for model training and refinement underscore critical shortcomings in India’s AI infrastructure. Moreover, the country lacks indigenous foundational or generative models akin to GPT (generative pre-trained transformers), further adding to the deficit.

Urgent investments are needed to address these deficiencies and propel India towards technological parity with its counterparts. In addition, measures to attract and retain top-tier talent, coupled with the establishment of AI-focused policy think tanks and research institutes, are essential to stem potential brain drain and cultivate a vibrant ecosystem conducive to AI innovation within India’s borders. Moreover, India’s comparative dearth of AI experts underscores the exigency of cultivating a robust talent pipeline through incentivised PhD programmes and research fellowships. 

A lesson from the US 

Over the past several decades, the United States has strategically leveraged its migration policies to attract cutting-edge talent from around the world, positioning itself as a beacon for innovation and technological advancement. By fostering a welcoming environment for skilled professionals, entrepreneurs and researchers, the US has cultivated an ecosystem that thrives on the exchange of ideas and expertise. This influx of talent has been instrumental in propelling the nation to the forefront of the global technology landscape, enabling the emergence of iconic businesses of considerable size, scale, repute and geopolitical significance. From Silicon Valley giants to biotech pioneers, the contributions of immigrant entrepreneurs and innovators have been instrumental in shaping such a trajectory.

India’s ITES (information technology enabled services) sector, once a beacon of success, must not complacently rely on past achievements, particularly as it missed the boat on the lucrative technology consulting business opportunity and remains entrenched in the lower echelons of the IT services hierarchy. 

Relying solely on startups to drive innovation and scale is insufficient; India must proactively invest in homegrown talent and entities, nurturing the development of intellectual properties (IPs) that not only promise perpetual financial returns but also wield significant strategic and geopolitical influence. Currently, despite its large talent base, while global entities and tech behemoths pour substantial investments into groundbreaking initiatives, India struggles to generate impactful IPs in the field.

India must prioritise the development of its STEM education, training, research, investment and intellectual property. Ongoing initiatives such as the Atal Innovation Mission, Startup India, and the National Education Policy 2020 aim to address some of these challenges and foster a more vibrant STEM ecosystem in India. However, progress may vary depending on implementation and sustained commitment from all stakeholders.

(Srinath Sridharan is a policy researcher and corporate advisor.)

(Published 02 March 2024, 22:56 IST)

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