This is the eighth article in the weekly series of Expert’s Opinion, where we talk to academics who study AI or other emerging technologies and their impact on society and the world.
This week, we spoke to Aayush Rathi, Senior Researcher at the Centre for Internet and Society, whose current research focuses on emerging conversations around the future of work as well as cybersecurity.
Rathi has previously worked as a labour lawyer post his graduation in law and humanities from the National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata.
Analytics India Magazine caught up with Rathi to get insights into his recent research on the impact of AI automation and other emerging technologies in India’s IT sector.
AIM: Why is it important to understand latest developments in technology to assess its impact on the jobs it will displace?
Rathi: Discussions about automation in work today tend to be dominated with a celebration of artificial intelligence. We fall short of assessing these technological developments (cloud computing, big data, and others) for their on-ground impact. Their impact on job functions and the way we work is very nuanced and complex. Much of the contemporary discourse around automation gets subsumed within overarching rubric of artificial intelligence. This precludes us from adequately capturing the various technological developments that we are confronted with, including cloud computing, Big Data and others. Each of these developments portend to implicate job functions in specific ways.
I am also very interested in unpacking the powerful metaphors of intelligence, neurons and cognition that have become common in futurist discourse. Ongoing conversations mistake the relentless pursuit of profit for inevitable, anxious, and essential development or ‘progress’.
What I’m getting at here is that the techno-centric nature of these conversations has the effect of underplaying its political and socio-cultural impact. Understanding these dimensions holds the promise of delivering just futures – a future in which we challenge social inequalities and political power.
AIM: Does India need to be wary of reshoring by IT or data science firms as it will take business operations back to their headquarter countries?
Rathi: The neoliberal economists’ response may be that India’s IT/ITeS sector needs to move up the ladder by creating the enabling environment to provide high-value services. This would then give India an edge vis-a-vis competition from Southeast Asian countries. However, this may only be beneficial for a miniscule part of the IT/ITeS sector. While we still lack robust employment data, indications are that there is an ongoing unemployment crisis that has been further heightened by Covid-19 induced layoffs. Some sound policy ideas to address this could be guaranteeing employment in urban centres, universal basic income proposals and policy proposals for India’s migrant workforce.
AIM: What are the implications of the change in the way productivity is measured in the IT/ITeS sector?
Rathi: It is evident that measures of productivity are frequently changing in the IT/ITeS sector. Recently, there are clear trends on breaking away from metrics that have been borrowed from mechanised, factory-based labour. In other words, productivity metrics are increasingly moving away from measuring inputs and outputs, to measuring ‘revenue-per-employee’. The emergence of the “-as-a-service” paradigm has been key in accelerating this change. Corporations are also increasingly keen on turning ‘lean’, by shifting organisational structures from the classical pyramid to an hourglass—with more focus on the top and bottom rungs of employees and a hollowing out of the middle.
AIM: What are some of the major findings in your study with respect to how manual labour will be impacted due to automation and other emerging technologies?
Rathi: A central implication of our study is that technological change does not impact job loss/gain in a vacuum, nor is it neutral. Technologies are made and used within existing social relations. Relatedly, technology itself is a site of struggle, and we are witnessing the rise of white-collar collectivisation. The service industry is also incredibly stratified. Within what is regarded as the IT sector itself, there is a wide range of occupational categories, and then also demographic variance.
Another implication is that we need to puncture the hyperbole that is taken for granted in discussions about the power of emerging technologies. It surprises many that contemporary information systems are extremely labour-intensive. They rely on armies of coders, data cleaners, content moderators, subcontractors, page rankers etc. who form what has been called the ‘fissured workplace’. Often hired through microtasking platforms that are transnational in nature, this ‘reserve workforce’ does not feature on company payrolls. So, we’re witnessing a shift in both job roles and tasks, as well as the structure of the employment relationship.
AIM: What are your policy recommendations for a labour-dependent country like India, considering all the threats of automation including reshoring, the pandemic, and the emerging tech, to avoid job losses?
Rathi: In the early days of the covid-19 outbreak, we saw a flurry of states proposing to dilute, and even entirely suspend, labour law provisions. The proposed moves were the most short-sighted manifestation of hasty assumptions that are used to justify the weakening of Indian labour law. Another commonly used defence of automation is that it brings efficiency. We need to question this – who is it bringing efficiency for? And what type of efficiency is this? The pandemic has accelerated trends of work-based technological adoption. This will pose barriers for the protection of our labour and civil rights, as we look to embrace a future with heightened workplace surveillance. A labour rights + digital rights agenda has to be developed.
What is most clear to me is that we need to urgently foster the participation of a broad range of marginalised groups in the deliberations of our collective futures. This includes rethinking our labour law approaches in ways that it doesn’t pit one category of labour against another, or gets stripped to reductive binaries of “pro-labour” and “pro-capital”, and makes serious inroads into universalising social security and welfare provision. While technological change may be inevitable, it needn’t be unethical.