Print Edition - 2016-04-03  |  Free the Words

Changing times

  • Majority of jobs that our folks have been doing on foreign soil will soon be performed by robots
- Manish Pokharel & Bimal Pratap Shah, Kathmandu

Apr 3, 2016-

Disruption is the new normal in the 21st Century. It displaces the status quo with something new, efficient, and worthwhile. The World Economic Forum says more than half of the companies that were on the Fortune 500 list in the year 2000 are no longer there now, mainly because they were disrupted by organisations that innovated and adapted at a faster rate. In a similar manner, on the political front, the larger political parties will also be disrupted, that is, if they fail to adapt to the rapidly changing technological landscape and transform into forward looking, accountable and transparent entities. There are two key trends unfolding this very moment that support our claim.

Internet and machines

The first is the online hyper connectedness of our society.  We all know, the internet is changing the world at an exponential rate and also becoming an integral part of our lives and economy. Gartner, an American research and advisory firm, predicts five billion people and 21 billion things will be connected to the internet by 2020. Yes, we are entering the new age, an era, according to Kluas Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, where “it is not the big fish that eats the small, it is the fast fish that eats the slow fish.” 

The question is: Why are so many companies vulnerable to large scale disruption? The answer is simple. They are too slow to let go of the legacy process, culture, and leadership that are no longer relevant in the new digital age. This means, traditional organisations, including the political parties that continue to operate with the ‘big fish eat small fish’ mindset of the bygone era are going to be eaten by something faster. 

The second is the coming of a ‘Machine Age,’ that will bring massive technological unemployment. It is estimated that 30 percent of the jobs that currently exist will be done by robots in five years. Many countries are already preparing for this change. China has already made it clear that robotics is going to be a major priority for the country’s economic future and is busy laying the groundwork for a robot revolution. Foxconn, the world’s largest contract manufacturer that employs more than one million workers in China has already invested heavily in robots that are capable of performing routine jobs like spraying, welding, and assembling.

Australia and the US are also on a similar path. According to the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, more than five million jobs, almost 40 percent of jobs that exist today in the country, will vanish in the next 15 years. Likewise, in the US, 80 million jobs are expected to be stolen by machines over the next 20 years. Empirical evidence shows that even construction industry known for minimally using digital technologies is set for disruption. For instance, engineers in Australia have created fully working robots that can create a brick framework 20 times faster than a human bricklayer. Similarly, a New York based company has invented a semi-automatic robot that can supposedly pick up bricks, apply mortar, and then lay each brick in the desired location up to four times faster than humans.

Like it or not, robots will disrupt every industry. Mass unemployment will be widespread. The economy will further stagnate increasing the threat of social unrest. This can be troubling for a remittance depended country like Nepal. In the last decade, close to 1,800 youths have been leaving the country almost on a daily basis seeking better opportunities elsewhere. Furthermore, remittance, to some extent, helped save the country’s deteriorating economy. As a result, the political leadership did not really feel the pressure or, for that matter, the need to improve the country’s economic health.

Concern for Nepal 

The remittance sent by Nepali migrants contributes close to 

25 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). But in reality, remittance is not considered to be an effective long-term strategy. The World Bank calls this cushion the “vicious policy cycle of large remittance”, and warned that “no country has ever succeeded in sustaining growth and job creation on remittance alone.” And the World Bank is right. The majority of jobs that our folks have been doing on foreign soil, mainly in the Middle East, will soon be performed by robots. 

In the last three months, at least 700 Nepali migrants have been deported from Kuwait alone due to non-compliance with the residence and labour laws. Similarly, close to 161 Nepalis were recently detained by the Malaysian authorities after the Malaysian deputy prime minister announced “suspension of recruitment of foreigners and deportation of illegal workers.” Pretty soon, many will return because robots will replace them, which also means that the people contributing to 25 percent of the GDP will soon be the victims of technological unemployment. 

What does this mean for Nepal? Well, for one, the political parties are going to be in deep trouble, because the country will be full of unemployed people unable to seek jobs elsewhere. In an ideal world, this challenge would most likely force the government to come up with policies and programmes designed to prepare the country for the new machine age. 

However, to be honest, the political leadership, mostly likely, will still continue to operate with the traditional mindset of the bygone era and will not be able to maneuver the new technological landscape. Then again, this could change. But if things remain the same, time will pave the way for the new breed of political parties and politicians—with wisdom and capacity to develop and implement sound policies and strategies so as to avoid potential dystopian doom invited by the machine age and more importantly, propel the country to the new heights of prosperity.

As we welcome the New Year, an even more radical idea is to replace politicians with Androids-synthetic organisms designed to look and act like humans. Ex Machina, anyone?

Pokharel is an Associate Professor and Head of Department of Computer Science and Engineering, School of Engineering at Kathmandu University; Shah is the co-author of ‘Strategic IT Planning for Public Organisations: A Toolkit’ published by the UN in 2009

Published: 03-04-2016 09:20

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