Ira, the HDFC humanoid robot assistant is not here to take away our jobs…not yet

We checked out HDFC's humanoid robot Ira and spoke to experts on the impact of robotics and its transformational potential in our society.

It’s a slow process; one that will not just take time to get through. Firstly, we must comprehend. Just like demonetisation, that is taking some villagers from Stone Age to an age of cloud connectivity, the transition is both painful and comes with plenty of opposition.

We're talking about HDFC's humanoid robot assistant.

Unfortunately for the bank (which also happens to be India’s most valuable lender), it is in the news for all the wrong reasons. To be more precise, it let go of nearly 4,500 employees in the October-December quarter. To make things worse, its earnings growth dropped to an 18-year low.

HDFC, in a statement, told The Economic Times that the drop in headcount was a result of natural attrition combined with slow hiring. And this news itself was enough to throw a barrage of questions at HDFC country head, Nitin Chugh centered around job cuts. One could simply call it bad timing, but there’s more that I learnt from the creators of the robot here, and it all hints that a revolution is coming, but right now it still remains a distant dream.

The reality

Simply put, Ira the humanoid robot assistant that will float about in the HDFC Bank branch in Mumbai has not successfully taken anyone’s job, not yet. From what I know, and from the demonstration, she is no smarter than an ATM machine. In fact, all Ira and here clones will do at HDFC bank branches in the coming two years is simply guide confused customers to the right bank counter and that’s about it.

She sways her hands back and forth, but she is not able to hold an elderly customer’s hand (human touch) and guide them to the right counter. In fact, Ira cannot even do transactions. No you cannot bank with her, not yet.

Ira, the HDFC humanoid robot assistant is not here to take away our jobs…not yet

But as Chugh put it, the bank is working on artificial intelligence and voice recognition technologies. HDFC plans to introduce features like voice and face recognition for customer identification, voice-guided navigation, balance enquiry and cheque deposits among others.

When these come into play, a couple of years down the line, we still will not expect job cuts.

So rather than talking to Chugh, I chatted up Jayakrishnan T, CEO of Asimov Robotics and the excited CEO had plenty to talk about.

A different perspective

His perspective however, was a broader one, a future where most blue collar jobs would be replaced by robots. I asked him whether he saw a future where humans would be replaced by robots at the various bank counters. He smiled and said, “Not only in banks, everywhere!”

Jayakrishnan explained that India has a lot of resources when it comes to jobs. Not just in the field of robotics but elsewhere as well. What he meant to say was that there’s so many of us now, educated, qualified, MBAs, etc. Adding to this is India’s push for digital and better internet connectivity and this hints that many more will join the ranks; not just from smaller towns but even villages.

“India is very rich in resources. But with blue collar jobs, we won’t be getting people. And that gap is soon increasing.” With a proud smile on his face he continues, “Who do you think will fill in that gap? The answer is robots!”

He quickly gave an example of a security guard, a job that even in India with all its billions of citizens will soon find vacant spaces.

So I connected with him about where we are headed. “Robotics was seen differently in India” he said. Coming with 10 years of experience in core robotics, he commented that a decade ago, we were simply suppliers. “Now there is a change. Almost all IITs, IIITs and NIITs are doing really good research and things are now on the right track. Now it is happening.” hinting that we don’t really need to go abroad for solutions anymore.

Eat, sleep, repeat

We have been here before. Back in '90s it was the automotive industry, in the 2000s it switched to electronics and now almost a decade later, everyone’s talking about artificial intelligence and bots replacing not just blue collar jobs in developed countries, but white collar jobs as well, like in the case of Fukoku Mutual Life in Japan.

These were jobs done by humans that are now expected to be done by machines. Moreover, machines even do a better job at things like welding, cutting, painting, and they can do all of this without complaining, in an environment where an employer need not worry about unions and wages.

We are only to blame

But who do you think is responsible for all of this? Well, it’s just us. Today it’s blue collar jobs, tomorrow it will be the decision makers with AI taking a call for judgement in a court of law. And we are to be blamed.

Consumerism along with the lack of patience, and add to this our growing population; there is no escape, robots will be the future.

But sit back and relax, as we have yet to build our first production, walking, talking, intelligent android yet.

But once that is accomplished society will head into chaos (think demonetisation on steroids). May be something better awaits, maybe humanity will finally cease to be about jobs and making money, maybe we will look at the stars and have other objectives, like in those cool Star Trek flicks. Maybe we will just involve ourselves in pursuing things like art, drama something that robots cannot comprehend...something that makes us more human.

There’s probably a better future for humans with robots waiting at the other end of the tunnel, but all we can see right now is the long dark journey in between.

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