Book Review | How to rehumanise the workplace in the era of cyborgs

The Asian Age.  | Sanjeev Ahluwalia

The fear is, machines could become sentient in the not-too-distant future.

Cover photo of 'Work 3.0' by Avik Chanda and Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay. (Photo by arrangement)

The central concern of the authors is how to retain human-centric workplaces in the face of the expected tech onslaught increasingly making machines central to the design, implementation and monitoring of most functional tasks catering to human needs. The fear is, machines could become sentient in the not-too-distant future. Cyborgs with machines as body parts (not just heart and limbs) but very soon artificial neural networks to replace damaged nerves and restore eyesight, muscular control and so on are already envisioned. In this context, worrying about the transition of “workplaces” is but a proxy for the larger transformation of the world, as we humans know it.

Yet the authors are not Luddites. Far from it. They advocate embracing technological change by being resilient and mindful at the individual level and increasingly more human-centric at the institutional level. Not many would disagree with them. Even most business leaders would agree privately, through the “invisible hand” might dictate otherwise for corporate actions. Humans need to strive to retain the essence of emotional intelligence and empathy, which distinguishes them from increasingly better equipped machines adept at managing most human activities.

The first of the “thousand cuts” which machines will inflict on humans is the loss of “good jobs”. This is no longer a developing country issue thanks to the competitive forces of globalisation and the sector wide cross-country standardisation of production systems and processes. What remains unanswered is whether mitigation options exist to temper the transformation or adaptation is the only choice and at what cost. This is analogous to the key unanswered issues in environmental degradation and climate change.

The book suggests that technology will drive deep changes in work content and functions. Semi-skilled workers and middle managers will be under threat. Technical efficiency enhancement is usually achieved by disintermediating transactions, like cutting out the middleman, as in directly settled cryptocurrency replacing cumbersome and expensive inter-bank transactions. The authors devote significant print space to listing growth-oriented domains and jobs and adaptation roadmaps for humans. One such is constant upskilling to scrabble for the increasingly fewer jobs available, building internal resilience to look beyond temporary setbacks and developing helpful, healthy, human relationships.

An entire chapter is devoted to rising inequality. The likelihood is that as machines edge humans out of work, income inequality will increase. Those financing, manufacturing, or servicing machines will thrive, whilst the bulk of humans will be left doing low productivity jobs, automating which is not financially feasible. This replicates the K-shaped growth during the recovery post the Covid-19 pandemic.  The authors hope that governments will measure up to the task of providing the large mass of future under and unemployed humans with significant income support, hopefully by taxing heightened returns to capital, rather than via debt. The jury is out on what living perpetually on handoutswould do to the dignity and sense of self-worth of the individual.

Here the authors are prescient in devoting an entire chapter to the need to ramp up and destigmatise mental healthcare. Indians are only too aware of the trauma of families coping sans adequate government support for mental healthcare. Catering adequately to this generalised medical black box, which extends its deadly tentacles far beyond workplace issues, could usefully become a major plank of a “just transition” protecting the most vulnerable.

The book comes embedded with 47 pre-reviews, thereby making one job redundant — that of the book reviewer with job security tremors also passing upwards to editors. Over two-thirds of the pre-reviewers are either business professionals or academics, many are authors in their own right, with a sprinkling of government officers, journalists, and tech founder-entrepreneurs. The authors modestly title this segment “Praise for the Book”, including from some Indian luminaries.

Bibek Debroy, chairman of the Prime Ministers Economic Advisory Council, describes it as “a prodigious work, lucid, astute and thought provoking”. For Gurcharan Das, veteran corporate thought leader, it is — “A wise book!” Krish Srinivasan, former foreign secretary of India, hails it as “a visionary book”. For Tirthankar Roy of the London School of Economics, the book’s strong humanist tenor links the past to the future via the present.

It is difficult to argue against 47 of the best. And yet one wonders why the authors feel that humans have no option except to adapt to relentless, often senseless, technologically-driven growth. Also, how effective have past entreaties evoking the humanism of global business and governments been, in mitigating financial and climate apocalypse or sheltering humans from its impact? The one thing the future will not forgive is administering palliative care to minimise the pain, rather than cauterising the rot of greed and fear.

Work 3.0

By Avik Chanda and Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay

Penguin Business 2023

466 pages Rs 524