The best problem solver in the world is an ostrich. It simply buries its head in the sand and voosh… all problems are gone! Those who advocate that India must keep the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) away are advocating the same art. Their logic is simple. They say the machines will replace human beings at jobs which would lead to large scale job losses. This would create mass unemployment and push more people in poverty. When faced with logic, they admit that some jobs would be created but then they argue that the jobs so created would be the high end one requiring specialized skills. Then the argument continues like this… How will a poor country like India, with so much of unskilled labor-force, be able to reskill them for these high end jobs? Thus, the 4IR would only exacerbate inequality and social tensions further. An army of unemployed would be created which would lead to everyday riots and chaos!
Therefore, they say, India doesn’t need the Fourth Revolution. All this is good but doesn’t it all sound too hackneyed? Faint memories of Malthus and Marx start coming to the fore?
For those who are unfamiliar with what the Fourth Revolution means, it refers to the revolutionary changes in economic processes to be brought about by new technological advances in fields like artificial intelligence (AI), cloud computing, Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, energy storage and quantum computing (Schwab, 2016). The First Revolution refers to the period starting in late eighteenth century when steam power replaced human and animal labor. The second refers to late nineteenth century and early twentieth when mass production and assembly lines made production at a scale possible which could never be dreamt of earlier.
The third came about in late twentieth century with large scale use of electronics and information technology to automate processes (Schwab, 2016). Differing in details, all these revolutions had one thing in common. All of them were brought about by technological changes – mainly in industrial processes – but in their impact, went much beyond to change the entire fabrics of our lives and society.
To answer these concerns of the critics, we must take a journey through the history. History is a great teacher and provides most, if not all answers. This is because the underlying forces in history remain the same, only the faces change. So in the following section, we go back to the time of onset of the First Revolution and try to understand the concerns of the critics back then – for those concerns would have been similar. After that, we will explore the answers which history has given along with the underlying logic as to why things unfolded the way they did and why they will continue to unfold in a similar fashion. Finally, we will dwell upon the question that how India stands today with respect to the Fourth Revolution and what it should do to adapt better.
Before the Steam
Let us step back to the last quarter of eighteenth century England. Back then agriculture was the principal employer. Wool was the most important industry. There were no factories and the production would take place via the putting-out system. Under this system, home-based workers based out of their home produced under contract to merchant sellers, who often supplied the raw materials too. In the off season the women, typically farmers’ wives, did the spinning and the men did the weaving. Cotton was not even important and the share of value added by the cotton textile industry in Britain was just 2.6% in 1760. Roads were poor and thousands of people were employed in horse driven coaches which could carry only a handful of people and goods at a time. Only short stretches could be traveled at a time and this gave employment to thousands more in inns along the way.
Since there were no telephones or telegraph, sending mails employed many more. There were no machines to build machine tools and so thousands of blacksmiths and carpenters were employed in making machines. Ship making employed many more carpenters and running one employed scores to man the oars. One can go on and on describing it. In a nutshell, England then was like what most of the developing countries are today. An overwhelming majority of people employed in primitive agriculture and low productive industrial jobs.
In such a backdrop, imagine introduction of a steam driven machine which could do the job of a thousand men. In 1781, cotton spun in England amounted to only 5.1 million pounds (Beckert, 2014). A few such machines operated by a handful of men were enough to wipe out jobs in the entire cotton spinning sector. Critics would have argued back then too that the handful of factory jobs so created would be too few and too specialized to absorb the army of unskilled unemployed people so created by them machines. How would we re-skill these people losing their livelihoods to machines? Similarly, they would have decried that the new machines would put an end to the putting-out system. All the cottage industry workers would be rendered jobless and household incomes would fall.
The horse driven coaches which employed thousands of drivers would be replaced by literally a ‘driverless’ coach called railways where just one person operated a steam driven coach which had a carrying capacity equivalent to a thousand earlier coaches. And also vast number of supporting jobs would be lost as people would no longer need horses, wooden carriages (leading to loss of carpentry jobs) and would travel longer distances and hence most of the inns would have to shut down. As telegraph lines appear, the mailman would lose his job too. Machines making machine tools would render the carpenters and blacksmiths out of labor markets. Even the poor agricultural labor would not be spared as steam power would replace humans there too. Thus the new steam revolution would push millions out of their jobs into poverty, increase inequality and social tensions. An army of unemployed would be created which would lead to everyday riots and chaos. Therefore England doesn’t need the steam revolution!
Journey through the History
Thankfully, England didn’t listen to the critics back then. Even the staunchest supporters of steam would not have imagined in their wildest dreams what was about to unfold. We present what happened subsequently in a series of figures below.
Figure 1 shows the world per capita GDP growing with time (DeLong, 1998). ‘Economic growth’ may be a household term today. But as one can see in the figure, it had never existed before the first industrial revolution. Industrial revolutions gave the world the concept of growth. The share of value added by the cotton textile industry in Britain was 2.6% in 1760, 17% in 1801 and 22.4% in 1831. In 1781, total cotton spun in England was 5.1 million pounds which increased to 56 million pounds by 1800 (Beckert, 2014). Perhaps Malthus, back then, was justified in advancing his gloomy propositions. But can we be spared for making the same mistakes now?
Figure 1: World GDP per capita (1000-2000 CE)
The industrial revolutions, though were sparked from technological advances in industrial processes, their impact was not limited to workshops only. Higher incomes impacted every aspect of life – the most fundamental being better diet and healthcare – leading to longer and secure lives as shown in Figure 2 (Joyner, 2013). This eventually led to an exponential growth in world population itself – Figure 3 (Williams, n.d.).
Figure 2: Global Life Expectancy (10000 BC to 2003)
Figure 3: World Population (billions)
The most remarkable thing about the growth since the beginning of the revolutions is that this exponential growth in per capita income has come despite an exponential growth in overall population, thereby underlining the very vital role which productivity growth has had to play in this phenomenon. Figure 4 puts together the world population and production growths in same perspective (Robert E. Lucas, 2004).
Figure 4: World Population and Production
Figure 5 shows the net productivity increase in the sector which lay at the heart of the First Industrial Revolution i.e. cotton (Textile Industry, 2012). Yes, the steam engine rendered hundreds of men jobless. But it increased the overall production by thousands of times which employed all these people at wage rates much higher than before.
Figure 5: English cotton spinning and weaving productivity (1777-9 = 100)
Furthermore, to the great astonishment of our critics, the automation which was supposed to bring doom and push millions out of jobs into poverty, brought increases in real wage rates for the workers instead, as shown in Figure 6 (Clark G. , 2005).
Figure 6: Real wage growth in Britain (1860 = 100)
With respect to inequality, it is a myth that the ancient world had little inequality. Not only did it have severe inequalities, but had the worst form of inequalities. For example, it is estimated that pre-revolution France had a Gini coefficient (it measures inequality on a scale of 0 to 1 and the higher the Gini, the higher the inequality) of 0.59 (Morrisson & Snyder, 2000). Soltow (1989) estimated a Gini of 0.69 for Amsterdam in 1742. Gini coefficient for Prussia in has been estimated to be 0.36 in 1850 (Dumke, 1991) and 0.34 in 1852 (Clark C. , 1951). British Gini was estimated by Lindert (1999) to be 0.59 in 1801. The same England has a Gini of 0.34 now, while that of France is 0.38, Netherlands is 0.28 and Germany is 0.31 (World Bank, 2017). Even more notable than the reduction in economic inequality is the increase in social and economic mobility. Industrial Revolutions and higher incomes brought with them liberty for the masses and gave them the wings to fly high – wings which had hitherto been crushed at the time of birth only for centuries in the earlier Ancien Regime where the accident of birth determined virtually every aspect of life. Results of a study (Long, 2013) conducted to assess social and economic mobility in Britain are shown in Figures 7 and 8. One can see the level of mobility by seeing how small a fraction of sons live their lives in the same economic class as their fathers. Such things would have been unimaginable in a pre-revolution era. An Einstein born in a peasant family would have spent his entire life as an illiterate peasant toiling the lands of his lord only and the world would have known no relativity.
Figure 7: Inter-generational Mobility in Britain, 1851-81
Figure 8: Inter-generational Mobility in Britain, 1972
Why did this happen? The very same automation which we dread now – the one which like now was supposed to throw millions out of jobs back then also actually ended up in a) creating more jobs, b) better jobs, c) with increase in real wages, and d) better lives for everyone! How? Back then also they were crying – the machines would take over. All the jobs would be taken. Yet… we survived. And not just survived, but thrived. In the following section, we will analyze this ‘why’?
Answering the Why
One fallacy which all such Malthusian predictions suffer from is that they underestimate basic human traits – the trait to adapt to survive and the trait to act in self-interest. Human beings can adapt to great lengths to the changing conditions in order to survive and grow. In fact, as Darwin propounded, life is all about adaptation and survival. Through our ingenuity, we have always been able to create more productive jobs when the old lower ones were taken away by machines. And no, let us not give the argument that earlier revolutions were just productivity enhancing ones and didn’t threaten jobs as the fourth one now does.
Let us not allow hindsight to cloud our judgement. As we have seen earlier, back then, they always seemed to be job taking ones. The predictors of gloom look at current production levels and say that hey look, these production levels can be achieved by just a handful of machines. So we will all be jobless in a few days. What they don’t imagine and what has always happened and will happen this time too, is that production would zoom by orders of magnitude and everyone would be re-employed in better jobs. The world will be a better place to live in. History always repeats itself – ‘this time’ has never been different and shall never be.
Economy works in miraculous ways due to inter-sectoral linkages. We can’t look at a handful of sectors and say a gain/loss to them would lead to the same outcome for the entire economy. An analogy may be drawn from imposition of tariffs. While an imposition of a customs duty on Chinese steel may benefit a nation’s domestic steel industry, but it may lead to an overall massive loss for the economy as higher prices of steel may make rest of our industries uncompetitive (steel is an input to rest of the economy).
Similarly, driverless cars and trucks may take away the jobs of drivers. But they may lead to overall economic gains as transportation costs plummet like they did post railways. What if 3D printing takes away the need of spending trillions on ports, ships, roads, rail development and makes transportation of goods thousands of times cheaper still? It will surely take away jobs in these sectors like railways earlier did to coach drivers, stable boys, inn keepers, but would make so many more businesses possible which can’t even be imagined now! And what about the benefit to the environment as these fossil fuel burning sectors become redundant.
All this happens because of the other basic human trait we mentioned – the trait to act in self-interest. It is the Adam Smith’s invisible hand which guides how economy reacts to technological shocks like these. All the previous industrial revolutions have enhanced productivity and not led to job losses because of this only. Let us look how. We can start by agreeing that no one produces for charity, producers produce for profit. If she produces something which doesn’t give her profit, she will stop producing it. Let assume that the economy is in equilibrium at a given starting point. That is to say, for example, in the beginning everything is produced by the old technology (in our case humans).
Now due to a technological change, automation happens in one sector in a factory and say that first factory fires everyone and starts producing entirely through machines. This naturally leads to job loss for the workers in that factory. But this automation is not a zero sum game. Overall it has led to increased productivity i.e. more number of units produced at lower costs. That factory owner now sells many more things and earns bumper profits. Now this will have three effects. Firstly, the factory owner is working in self-interest. She would want even bigger profits. No one stashes their money in copper hoards anymore and it is re-invested.
The second effect would be that her competitors seeing the surge in her profits would fire workers in their factories too and start producing through machines. This would lead to more job losses. At the same time it would lead to more profits for the owners. These profits would again have to be re-invested. The third effect would be that more likely than not, the benefit of lower costs would be passed on to consumers in the form of lower prices. Thus each consumer too would have that additional bit of savings at her disposal. This saving again would not be stashed in a piggy bank – but would be either invested or spent on other items.
If these additional savings and profits generated above are re-invested in other sectors or in the products of those factories which still employ humans, it would lead to additional demand in those sectors and those who have lost jobs here will get employed there. May be it opens up an entirely new sector? No one can predict. There will be frictional unemployment but it would be at best, temporary. We would dwell upon later on how it can be reduced. After this adjustment is done, everyone will be employed again and happier than before.
But what if these savings and profits are invested in these factories only or in sectors which don’t employ humans? For instance, what if the factory owner invests her profits into her factory itself buying more machines? Then those people she fired will still be unemployed. But this will increase the demand for machines and remember only her factory was automated, producing machines still require humans. So the people she fired will find jobs in factories producing machines. Overall again, everyone will be employed and the production will be much higher than before. But what if the machine making sector also sees a technological breakthrough as well and replaces humans by machines? If this is the case, our factory owner can keep earning higher profits without creating more jobs – a situation what is called ‘jobless growth’. Moreover, same thing can happen with all her competitors and the entire sector can grow without creating any jobs anywhere.
But three things will happen simultaneously now. As cost of production from these factories falls, the prices which they charge to consumers will fall too. This would leave more money in the hands of consumers and it is very unlikely that all the consumers will spend / invest the additional money in these factories only. They would most likely spend it on buying a variety of other items or invest in other sectors which they are more familiar with. This would increase demand in other sectors. And remember, these other sectors still employ humans (only this sector and its machine producing one have been automated so far). So the jobs lost in this sector will appear in the other sectors. Second thing which will happen simultaneously is that as the pool of unemployed grows, it will create downward pressure on wages. So other sectors will find it more attractive to hire more people.
Third thing, when a person becomes unemployed, she also loses her purchasing power. So as the number of people losing jobs increases, the overall purchasing power of the economy will start decreasing. When this happens, our factory owners will have to either reduce their prices to maintain their market or cut down on production. In either case, they will find that the return on employing machines is decreasing. This would make them hire less machines. A combination of the second and third factors will lead the market to turn back to hiring people. So the unemployment would again be a transitory phenomenon only and everybody would be employed once again. Only this time economy would be at a higher production than before and everyone would be happier.
Now let us say that there is a technological innovation now and costs of machines falls or some other sector too replaces humans with machines. This would restart the cycle mentioned above. It would make the entrepreneurs hire more machines and fire some people while increasing overall production. But doing so would disturb the market equilibrium and again falling prices would make employing machines less attractive and falling wage rates would make hiring labor more attractive. The result would be market coming to equilibrium again at the full employment level but now overall production is still higher, every labor has higher productivity and hence its real wage rate would be higher. In every case, there may be short term disturbances, but the markets will return to full employment with higher productivity and lower costs each time. Everyone will be happier after such revolutions. This is how all the previous revolutions have worked, and this is how all the subsequent ones will.
In reality, all these factors will be operating all at the same time. Some sectors would always be hiring, some would always be firing. A constant reshuffle would be going on in the economy. Technological innovations would be happening continuously. We must remember that whether it be steam engine or an intelligent robot, a revolution doesn’t happen all at once like the big bang. No one employs a steam engine just for the sake of it. That is why even though James Watt improvised the steam engine in 1781, it took decades for most of the factories to employ it. Computers and IT systems too took years. An entrepreneur will employ a steam engine only if doing so makes sense economically for her. We have seen above how the economic logic works. It is this economic logic which has ensured that the previous revolutions enhanced productivity and made lives better for all and it is the same logic which will ensure that the coming ones too would. It is a fallacy to assume that suddenly from tomorrow only jobs left would be that of high end programmers or other sophisticated ones. That day may come eventually but in the meantime, there will always be scope for bit more specialized than earlier but still less sophisticated jobs which most people can do. It would be a gradual move up the value chain.
There is only one condition when this logic would fail to hold. It is when machines start buying things instead of humans. If that happens, it is the considered opinion of the author that the human race will have much worse things to worry about than mere job losses – it would be the end of civilization as we know it!
Before the onset of First Industrial Revolution, India was the manufacturing hub of the world, not Britain. India produced 25% of the world’s manufacturing output. Cotton textiles went from India to England – so much so that England was forced to pass laws (called Calico Acts) banning their import. It all changed in less than quarter of a century. We all know why. India, like the proverbial ostrich, chose to bury its head in the sand and thought industrial revolution had vanished. But the entire world around it was changing. Whether she wanted or not, Industrial Revolution soon came knocking at the Indian gates riding on the wheels of colonialism, trade and capital flows and donning the red and whites of the East India Company. And Indians were caught unprepared. Soon the revolution penetrated the entire country. Not only did she lose her industrial supremacy, not only was she reduced to a state of absolute pauperism, not only did her artisans lose their jobs and wealth, but she ended up losing her very sovereignty. Figure 9 shows how the various regions of the world have fared in terms of prosperity from the day the steam was made to work for man (Kruse, 2008). No comments are needed.
Figure 9: Per capita GDP by World Region (1820-2003 at 1990 International Dollars)
While naked colonialism may not be present today, but the wheels of trade and capital flows are spinning faster than ever carrying greater volumes than ever. This time too, whether she may want it or not, she will have to reckon with the revolution. The question, according to the author, therefore is not whether India should stay away from the Fourth Revolution or not. The only question should be – how should she prepare herself for it? And as Figure 10 shows (Wang, 2015), the kind of change which beckons us now is nothing short of the steam engine.
Figure 10: Total Percentage Contribution to Annual Labor Productivity Growth Rates
India and the Fourth Revolution
From the discussion above, two things are clear. First is, no matter whether India wants or not, whether it bans driverless cars and other Fourth Revolution technologies or not, the Fourth Revolution will come.
She can adapt or she can perish. Secondly, any unemployment caused is only transient in nature. There will always be new jobs created in other sectors and people will move from one to other. If she bans new technologies due to the fear of this transitory unemployment, she will end up with structural unemployment and poverty as the products from across the globe fill her markets. If she thinks she can save herself by closing her markets, her exports will become uncompetitive. She cannot ban competition there. Slowly she will end up like North Korea. So banning the new technologies is no solution. The solution is to take steps to make this transient unemployment as temporary as possible.
To do so, India will have to remove the frictions which are there in place which make it difficult for firms to hire people. We want to make labor migration and hiring as easy as possible. Unfortunately, India has a heavily regulated business environment. Even eminent economists such as Bhagwati and Panagariya (2012) have highlighted how India’s regulations prevent firms from growing and hire more people. This problem is characterized as the ‘missing middle’ problem by them.
Missing middle is the phenomenon where small firms stay small because hiring more people would subject them to a host of new regulations thereby increasing business costs which makes it economically unviable for them to hire more labor. On the other hand, a handful of firms will be at the other extreme of the spectrum because they have access to capital and they need that huge scale to offset the costs imposed by the regulations. Not everyone has that kind of scale, so most of the firm end up remaining small, very small and thus uncompetitive.
It is basic economic sense that if the cost of labor is higher, a factory owner will employ more machines and if the cost of labor is lower, she will employ more labor. India has abundant labor, yet its regulatory environment makes the cost of labor very high so naturally entrepreneurs are inclined to employ more machines. If India wants to shorten the transitory unemployment phase, she will have to reduce business regulations and make it easier for firms to hire people. Otherwise this transitory unemployment will become ‘sticky unemployment’.
Next main cause of the friction would be the need for people to learn the new skills. The new skills needed will not be suddenly those requiring an understanding of epsilons and thetas. But as we saw earlier, it would be a gradual scale up which most people can do. Again the best place for people to learn precisely the skills that are needed, suited to their temperament is the workshop floor. For that again we will have to make it less costly for firms to hire people.
Kindly note that we are not talking about basic skills – they have to be picked up during education or vocational training. But the specialized skills have always been imparted on the work floor – across the globe and across the ages. Government run or sponsored skilling programs, on the other hand, have to be very good in order to a) achieve the scale which is needed, b) do that cost effectively, c) while maintaining quality so that people gaining skills are actually employable and d) more importantly, there is seldom a mechanism to impose the discipline of matching what skills are needed with what are supplied.
India today is uniquely placed to reap the gains of the Fourth Revolution. The new technologies can help her overcome the structural disadvantages it faces in today’s production model. To be globally competitive in present production model, one needs capital, large scale and good physical infrastructure. India lacks in all three. She has poor physical infrastructure – the roads, railways, ports, waterways, ships, power, all are lacking according to the global standards, she lacks capital, she lacks industries of large scale. Therefore she cannot, for instance, manufacture electronic chips and other countries are far more competitive than her. Fourth Revolution will change the game.
To be globally competitive in making chips, you won’t need any of these. All you would need is a good design. Bypassing all the roads, ports, ships, scale requirements, you can directly print electronic chips at the destination. It is the human resources which will increasingly determine the competitive advantage between the nations in the time to come. Innovations will become in the twenty first century what coal was to nations in the nineteenth and oil was in the twentieth.
Apart from it, India already has bulk of its population connected to good quality internet via their smartphones. It already has a unique Aadhar based payment system which connects most of its population. All these are the pillars on which she can stand tall. Therefore, apart from easing out business regulations, developing human resources and incentivizing innovation is the area Indian state should focus on if it really wants to ride the Fourth wave and not fall behind.
Summarizing the discussion, we first saw how the concerns which are raised today for the Fourth Revolution would have been raised at the time of First as well. We then saw what happened subsequently benefiting from our knowledge of history. We then went on to examine why things unfolded that way tracing the reasons to the very roots of human behavior. These factors still remain the same, therefore there is every reason to expect that like the previous three, the Fourth Revolution too would be a productivity enhancing one and make lives better for all of us. Any job losses would at best be transitory. We then finally saw that whether she wants the Fourth or not, it will impact India and her economy.
The only option for her is to prepare herself and not shun it. She is already uniquely poised to reap the benefits. All she needs to do to minimize the temporary pain is to ease out its business regulations – make it less costly for entrepreneurs to hire labor because it is basic economic logic that if hiring labor is more expensive than hiring machines, an entrepreneur will hire a machine and vice versa. Another critical thing she must do is to develop her human resource development and incentivize innovations.
Malthus was, and shall always remain, on the wrong side of history. We chose the wrong side in eighteenth century. Let us get it right this time.
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Citation : The originl published article is available for download here We thank Shri Gaurav Agrawal for graciously permitting us to feature the same article here.
Author – Gaurav Agrawal