Welcome to the brain economy: Technology will change the way we look at labour, capital and skills

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If Marx were alive today and playing with GPT4, he would have been the first to notice that the nature of labour has morphed drastically since the mid-19th century — from body to skill to brain. Physical labour required no education, skill-based labour required higher education, training and expertise, and, now, brain-based labour is about rapid innovation and creation, driven by technology. Welcome to the brain economy.

No industry will be immune from technology in the global brain economy. Retail, agriculture, automobile, finance, energy, manufacturing, healthcare, education, sports and entertainment will be driven and reshaped by technology and brain power. Technology will not be limited to software, artificial intelligence and data analytics — it will spread rapidly across brain sciences, quantum computing, genetic engineering, 3D printing, nanotechnology and combinations thereof.

We need to internalise the discomforting reality that the search for perfection in technology and its related issues is an illusion. Automobiles changed our lives vastly for the better, but have led to hundreds of thousands of deaths due to accidents and have hurt the environment due to emissions.

The answer, obviously, is not to ban automobiles but to make them safer and cleaner. Technology will keep evolving and the new generation of technology will solve the problems of earlier generations. First generation vaccines saved billions of lives from Covid.

To facilitate a meaningful dialogue around the trade-offs in the brain economy, we need to first abandon outdated stereotypes of evil corporations, sinful profits and inhuman technology. The accompanying myth of man vs machine, created when labour meant the human body, needs to be laid to rest. Technology doesn’t destroy jobs — it creates jobs, liberates people and drives social progress. Whether we like it or not, advances in technology in the brain economy will always be a couple of steps ahead of politicians, bureaucrats, policies and laws. We will have to learn to deal with it.

Naturally, there will be issues of concern like greedy corporations with an urge to dominate the marketplace and exploit legal loopholes. There will be ethical dilemmas regarding technology choices. Regulation and oversight are essential, but these need to be pragmatic, not dogmatic.
To do this, we need to widen the definitions of progressives, intellectuals and civil society. These definitions can’t remain confined to a closed group of liberal arts professors, activists and NGOs.

Technology illiteracy impedes understanding, perpetrates falsehoods and obstructs progress. A clear understanding of technology is as important an issue as those of privacy, inclusivity, fairness and ethics. Scientists, technologists, businessmen, entrepreneurs and corporations must also be present at the discussion table. Collaboration is the key. Adversarial positions will lead to extreme polarisation and decision gridlock resulting in economic stagnation and regression.

Starting now, the education architecture of the country needs to be revamped. Students and teachers in primary and secondary education need to be equipped with technology. Failures in experimentation and creation in schools should be celebrated, not ridiculed. If one is not failing it means that one is not trying new things. Multidisciplinary research universities should be created on a war footing. Courses in different aspects of technology must be made mandatory for all liberal arts programmes, just like liberal arts courses should be made mandatory in all science and technology departments.

The concerns of the employees in the body economy revolved around low wages, job tenure and exploitation. The concerns of the employees in the skill economy are skill relevance, flexibility and work-life balance. In the brain economy, they will question the company’s impact on the environment, gender parity, wealth sharing and other social issues. The business of business, consequently, will no longer be limited to business.

There could be many failures. Every successful innovation is built on a graveyard of failures. We will have to get used to it, factor it into resource allocation and not allow failures to stop us from moving ahead. Many corporations will be a combination of brain, skill and body. Amazon, for example, has brains that create new offerings, skills that maintain their vast data centres and bodies that deliver packages to homes. The focus will be on the complete elimination of the body and the gradual replacement of skills through technology. The holy grail will be a pure brain corporation. The accompanying job losses will have to be offset by the creation of new types of jobs that we can scarcely imagine now but will have to anticipate and be prepared for.

Many brains will operate outside the ambit of corporations. The scale and scope of open-source innovation will continue to expand, giving rise to a “societal brain”. India’s digital public goods revolution is an example of this. Corporations will also realise that not all the best brains work on their payroll.

The relationship between capital and labour will change. Capital exploited physical labour and invested in skills. It will now chase and partner with the brains. The balance of power between capital and labour will become more symmetric. But markets will create inequality by assigning exponentially differential values to body, skill and brain.

In a country the size of India, it’s impossible to transition everyone to the brain economy overnight. The biggest component of the body economy in India is agriculture. We need our agriculture to be technology-enabled, not body driven. Inequality will remain, but it’s better to be unequally well off than to be equally poor.

But the bigger issue of inequality is the inequality between nations. In the brain economy, the alternative to technology and innovation is total irrelevance. To be a globally relevant player, India needs to embrace the concept of this new world of the brain economy, adapt its mindset and appropriate its resources accordingly.

The writer is CEO of Krayon Pictures

© The Indian Express (P) Ltd

First published on: 26-04-2023 at 06:30 IST

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