voice service operations, while others are abandoning them altogether in favor of e-mail or chat help desks.
The prospect—or fear—of automation has thus become one
more force reshaping the call center business. Voice recognition
isn’t anywhere close to perfect yet, and even the sophisticated
cognitive agents of the vaunted near future may not be able to
parse rambling customers, complicated problems, or uncommonly thick accents. But most voice work is prosaic and repetitive. Given that humans in the first tier of this service calibrate
their responses with the help of a script, their functions are
among the simplest to transform into machine code.
Other fruit hangs similarly low elsewhere in the sector; as
Dube says, “India is nothing but the blue-collar worker of IT,” so
the lowest layer of work is plump with tasks that need diligence
and stamina but not creativity or sharp technical skill.
At Genpact, a 20-year-old company in the industry of business process outsourcing, there’s a lot of “swivel-chair work,”
Genpact has been replacing workers in swivel chairs by ordering computers to take information from screens and servers and
convey it into another system.
One level up is the kind of work that Giacomelli calls “
reconciliation”: examining invoices and bills from a client’s various
vendors and customers, with all their discrepancies and contradictions. It isn’t trivial work; it involves, right now, some grains
of human judgment. “But once machines have seen enough of
those things, they can do that kind of stuff,” he says.
For some of its clients, the IT colossus Infosys has been able to
automate nearly all of the most routine chores of monitoring and
maintaining their data infrastructure, says S. Ravi Kumar, the
company’s deputy COO. Some intermediate work, such as triaging IT service requests, is now done by machines as well. At a
still-higher level of service complexity—jobs that involve troubleshooting bugs deep within the code, or developing solutions to
new problems— 35 to 40 percent of tasks are performed by automated routines.
Overall, Somak Roy, an analyst at Forrester Research, esti-
mates that only a quarter of the most easily automated work in
India is being completed exclusively by machines. Companies
are still enthusiastically dabbling in technologies that remain
nascent. Nonetheless, Roy calls it a “distinct possibility” that IT
will “cease to be a large-scale employment generator in India.”
One of the direst visions comes from Pankaj Bansal, the
chief executive of PeopleStrong, a human-resources firm that
frequently staffs IT companies with engineers. For IT services
firms in the shape and form India has known them, Bansal says,
“it will be mayhem.” He has been accused of fearmongering, but
he holds fast to his assessment. Over the last two years, three or
four out of every 10 jobs in the bottom layer of the pyramid of
IT work have been “squashed” by automation, he says—and this
has been manifested not in how many people have been laid off
but in how sharply recruitment has dropped. Companies once
gusted through the campuses of engineering colleges, picking
them clean of fresh graduates. Bansal reckons that the IT sector
hired 400,000 people annually until two or three years ago, and
that the number has now shrunk to 140,000 to 160,000. Soon, he
says, “net hiring will be barely above zero.”
Bansal’s prophesy of a deflating workforce may well come
true for another reason. For years, IT firms hired inexpensive,
Bansal reckons that
the IT sector hired
annually until two
or three years ago,
and that the number
has now shrunk to
140,000 to 160,000.
Soon, he says, “net
hiring will be barely