When the first and second industrial revolutions took place, India was a colony, under-developed and exploited. Just to explain how small an economy we were when we got our Independence: India’s GDP in 1947 at today’s prices was less than the market cap of Hindustan Unilever today.
India did take part in the third industrial revolution, but we were still an economy coming out of the shackles of controls. Now a fourth industrial revolution is building on the third but is distinct in velocity, scope and systems impact. It is characterised by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.
When compared with the previous industrial revolutions, the fourth is evolving at an exponential pace. Moreover, it is disrupting almost every industry in every country. And the breadth and depth of these changes herald the transformation of entire systems of production, management, and governance.
The WTO in one of its publications mentioned that just as the shipping container changed world trade almost 70 years ago and enabled globalisation, technologies such as fifth-generation (5G) cellular networks, AI and blockchain and distributed ledger technology (DLT) could change the landscape of global production and trade over the next few decades.
Indian industry is becoming adept at exploring and adopting the new trends. According to International Federation of Robotics, India has witnessed a 20 per cent average annual growth rate of new installations of robots for the period 2008-20 as against the 15 per cent recorded worldwide.
Technology led innovations will lead to long-term gains in efficiency and productivity. Manufacturing, transportation and communication costs will drop, logistics and supply chains will become more effective and all of these will open new markets and drive economic growth.
Major shifts on the demand side are also occurring, as growing transparency, consumer engagement, and new patterns of consumer behavior built upon access to mobile networks, force companies to adapt the way they design, market, and deliver products and services.
We should also be cognisant that the revolution could yield greater inequality, particularly in its potential to disrupt labor markets. As automation substitutes for labor across the entire economy, the net displacement of workers by machines might exacerbate the gap between returns to capital and returns to labor.
A lot though is in our hands. As Charles Schwab of World Economic Forum said: “Neither technology nor the disruption that comes with it is an exogenous force over which humans have no control. All of us are responsible for guiding its evolution, as citizens, consumers, and investors. We should thus grasp the opportunity and power we have to shape the Fourth Industrial Revolution and direct it toward a future that reflects our common objectives and values.”
As past revolutions have demonstrated, the overall growth in the economy could in aggregate result in a net increase in safe and rewarding jobs. This would of course require extensive skilling, re-skilling and up-skilling of the work force.
In fact, the vision for our economy is increasingly based on the basic foundations of digital economy. As aptly said by our Prime Minister: “For us, technology is the basis for making the country self-reliant.”
A scenario of a billion-and-a-half people connected by mobile devices with unprecedented processing power, storage capacity and access to knowledge are within the realms of possibilities. And these possibilities will be multiplied by breakthroughs in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing.
Together, we can make India an innovation and technology led economy.
The writer is President, FICCI