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BT MindRush 2021: How AI will change work, workplace and workers

In terms of industries, almost all sectors - banking, retail, government, communication - have leveraged AI across the board and used the technology to gain traction widely

The power of artificial intelligence (AI) to make better sense of data and make better decisions across industries is an old trend that's just gained people's respect in the post-pandemic world. During the panel discussion on 'Technology Re-Invented at the Workplace' at BT MindRush 2021, industry leaders -- Daisy Chittilapilly, MD, Digital Transformation Office, Cisco; Subram Natarajan, Chief Technology Officer at IBM India and South Asia; and Dr Rohini Srivathsa, National Technology Officer (CTO), Microsoft India -- explain how the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the adoption of digital technologies like AI and machine learning (ML) all across industries and verticals.

"I think we're starting to see post-pandemic with a great degree of adoption of hybrid work. We're also seeing that shift from the external to the internal with enterprises using AI to focus on internal use cases, as well as use cases like employee productivity, employee experiences since Day 1," said Chittilapilly.

In terms of industries, almost all sectors - banking, retail, government, communication - have leveraged AI across the board and used the technology to gain traction widely. The biggest concern for enterprises, businesses, and governments - which are all becoming more digitised - is to harness the power of AI to detect and to mitigate cybersecurity risks.

Trend of AI staying beyond the pandemic

In terms of the increase in the use of AI, India is among the biggest economy as compared to other countries, including the US, UK and Japan, says Srivathsa. The idea of engaging with customers through digital channels, through digital assistance and taking that customer experience to the next level will be an important one, said Srivathsa.

The ability for manufacturing and office locations to become a lot more autonomous and a lot more resilient in terms of being able to have always-on facilities, even if there's a disruption will be important, said Srivathsa. There will be more and more digital assistants that will come into the workplace and there will be this augmentation of people and AI in terms of becoming more productive in terms of work, she added.

India at the forefront of adopting AI, ML

"If India becomes, for many organisations like IBM, Cisco, and Microsoft included, amazing hotbed or a laboratory for research on problems, it needs to have ability to do machine learning," Srivathsa stated.

"Very interesting work is happening on low resource machine learning at the Edge (cross-platform web browser) from Microsoft research, that will become a key part for embracing intelligence in agriculture, healthcare and biodiversity... that is all across the board," she further added.

In the language translation, the kind of work that is coming out of India is allowing the support of more than 10 languages that can enable more than 90 per cent of Indians to access information.

Data India is generating for AI, ML to be a game-changer

"The key is approaching this in a more pragmatic way of how we take the data to go through the necessary transformation. Not only collecting the data, but organising it, analysing it, and then bringing the AI part of it. Because if you have bad data, you will end up with bad AI. That whole life cycle, also called AI ladder, is absolutely critical. It's more of a pragmatic way of how you adept it," said Natarajan.  

"India being data-rich is good, but the ability to leverage and bring value from that data just supercritical by itself. By itself, the data doesn't do much. You have algorithms and compute to work on it too. And then be part of business processes to really create value," said Srivathsa.

India in terms of adoption of industrial robotics

"The penetration of industrial robots is fairly poor. If you take global statistics, India has about three robots for every 10,000 workers. On the other hand, the US, which is not the best in class, has almost 189 industrial robots for every 10,000 workers," explains Chittilapilly.

"The pandemic has already sped up the adoption of robotics. Because one of the things that manufacturing companies have come to realise is we can no longer have a situation where plants are closed for two months," Chittilapilly added.

"Consideration for a country like India is always on how do you shift your semi-skilled workers or poorly skilled workers? This conversation about increased industrialisation, robotic adoption has to go hand in hand with where will you relieve these workers? What jobs you create for them," said Chittilapilly.

Srivathsa said, "India will have to take a unique approach to automation in my view. And what I mean by that is that we will have to find a way in which our workforce has the ability to use AI in an augmented fashion. I don't think we will be able to take the best way of automating some things because the labour cost structure is completely different."

She added, "Also, how do we ensure that the machine learning and automation is augmenting human skills of all, there'll be certain areas where there are safety concerns, or there is the danger of a human being getting fatigued... I think the skilling in India is also unique because it is not just skilling of technical stuff, it is not a skilling of people who've built AI systems, but there's also skilling of people use AI systems."

"I think there's catching up to do. Statistically, I think there is there's a lot of stuff that we're doing. Probably because of the cost arbitrage structure, we never made that significant advancement in this area. But what we are seeing is that the whole pandemic has reminded us that we need to start introducing robotics at scale. Not only just bring the skills to a much more standardised and more uniform delivery of the products and services, but more to do with how you redeploy the existing skill, the human skills to higher-value jobs," said Natarajan.

"Where the industries have focused on, particularly the manufacturing and process, is to introduce many of these functions associated with AI into their process. Also, not necessarily just repetitively doing what a robot would do, but for example, a visual inspection where typically a human being is involved in really inspecting and validating the quality of the product," he added.

"Similarly, you see the introduction of robots and AI complementing each other, and the investments that are going into those areas are on the increase," added Natarajan.

Future of workplaces post-adoption of AI, ML

"The technology itself is evolving to trusted and open frameworks becoming much more evolutionary, and it will become so ubiquitous. So, we don't even realise that they are part of how we conduct ourselves, both at home, as well as at office," he added.

"What we will see is the adoption of many of these technologies, including AI at scale. And that would require a fair bit of you know, transparency of the technology that we use, the trust and transparency, and that will be an area where a lot of companies will grow and will see people wanting to adopt this, establishing the trust," said Natarajan.

"The biggest thing is that we must all keep an open mind to how we will all have to make shifts, whether that's the way we go to work or not go to work physically, the way we think about work, who we share that work with," said Chittilapilly.

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