It’s a decision that could have global reverberations: California regulators, by a 3-1 majority, have approved allowing driverless taxis to cruise the streets of San Francisco, which has the fifth-busiest traffic of any US city.

It’s tough to imagine driverless cars negotiating India’s chaotic roads. But that day will come, and sooner rather than later, when unmanned vehicles learn to weave around cows, stray dogs and bullock-carts. India’s so far said no to driverless-car technology to protect jobs of chauffeurs and taxi drivers, but hasn’t ruled out a future policy change.

There are two ways artificial intelligence (AI) can transform our world — at one level, opening countless opportunities and, at another, potentially making most humans redundant. Already, there are floor-cleaning robots and fast-food restaurants are employing burger-grilling robots. Goldman Sachs forecasts in the coming years 300-million jobs will disappear, including one-quarter of all jobs in Europe and the US.

AI job scare

What do the world’s tech titans think of AI’s job-apocalyptic possibilities? Amazon’s Jeff Bezos could one day just replace his employees with machines to move the millions of parcels the company dispatches daily. He sidesteps this possibility and sounds an optimistic note about AI, saying it, “will empower every business, every government organisation, every philanthropy. Basically, there’s no institution in the world that cannot be improved by AI.”

By contrast, his blunter, fellow billionaire Elon Musk has a bleaker view: “AI will make jobs kind of pointless. There’ll be fewer and fewer jobs a robot cannot do better. These are not things I wish will happen. These are things I think probably will happen.” Similarly, tech giant Sam Altman, who heads OpenAI, warns: “It’s very likely AI will lead to mass unemployment... It’s going to be a big social challenge.” IBM’s Arvind Krishna, meanwhile, has already slowed down hiring.

We’ve seen machines taking over jobs in recent decades. But now what’s about to change our lives is on an entirely different scale: automation where machines make the key decisions and may not even need a person to shut them down if anything goes awry. Another machine will make that decision.

The early job-market casualties are already evident. If driverless vehicles become widespread, truck drivers could be among the first to be run off the road.

Manufacturing workers are being eliminated by robot-manned assembly lines. Alarmingly, in the Indian context, even agricultural workers could become unnecessary as AI-driven sensor- and camera-equipped machines identify ready-to-harvest crops, What’s giving the educated-classes the shivers is the sudden realisation that AI could eliminate, or radically alter, their jobs too. Till now, we’ve comfortably assumed only manual labour and clerical jobs would vanish but that’s wrong. Doctors, lawyers, academics, journalists and other professions will see their jobs changed beyond recognition. Hours of searching for legal precedents now can be done in seconds while AI can expedite contract reviews, highlighting potential risks. Machines can analyse medical images, lab results and patient data and even make diagnoses faster than doctors. In radiology, AI can flag abnormalities at hitherto-unimaginable speeds and often more accurately.

India angle

India’s flagship software services industry could find the tasks it performs squeezed out by machines that can do the job faster. Industry leaders, though, are confident they can stay ahead of the automation curve. Says Pareek Consulting CEO Pareek Jain: “People are relying on Arvind Krishna’s prediction that in the next five years, 30 per cent fewer people will be required for similar jobs. That’s about a 5-to-6-per-cent annual decline. If industry growth can compensate for that we’ll be fine without any major layoffs.”

Where will people come into the picture? That’s an issue already attracting expert attention in the tech world and academia. At MIT Sloan, Senior Lecturer Paul McDonagh-Smith reckons human beings will be needed for what he calls “cross-disciplinary insights and making connections between domains.” He says: “It’s not about focusing on the differences between humans and machines but looking at the ways in which they can be unified and united.” Humans, he insists, offer the “creativity quotient” required to extract machines’ full potential.

The real test of driverless vehicles will be when they are ready to cruise along India’s Wild West roads. As one industrialist says: When they’re ready to do that, the AI-created future will truly be upon us.

Not only manual labour and clerical jobs would vanish but doctors, lawyers, academics, journalists and other professions will see their jobs changed radically