Who's afraid of automation and robots?

Who's afraid of automation and robots?

This child isn't afraid of the robot models he discovered last month at the Transformers-inspired exhibition in front of Siam Centre. (Bangkok Post file photo)
This child isn't afraid of the robot models he discovered last month at the Transformers-inspired exhibition in front of Siam Centre. (Bangkok Post file photo)

The recent Toyota Motor Thailand's layoff of 800 employees has caused quite a stir. Luckily, this incident turned out to be an isolated case, and not a prelude to mass unemployment. Yet, a real threat is imminent as the world's economies, advanced and emerging alike, are entering a brave new world of automation.

Isn't it alarming that 72% of Thai jobs could be at risk of being replaced by robots? This is no joke. According to the 2016 World Development Report, the threat of automation -- robots performing jobs humans used to do -- is indeed biased against the developing world, where two-thirds of jobs involve a lot of routine tasks. In contrast, the developed world fares better, with the figure at 47% for the US and 35% for the UK; still worryingly high numbers nonetheless.

Based on an Oxford University report, the probability of replacement is 80% or higher for telemarketers, taxi drivers and various manufacturing assemblers. Time-consuming tasks such as housekeeping services might be completed by robotic vacuum cleaners, which are available at 3,000 baht with a one-year warranty. On the other hand, jobs that require a high degree of socialisation and interactions with creative thinking face less of a threat from automation. For example, the probability is less than 15% for kindergarten teachers, food scientists and technologists.

How soon is this future of automation?

Sutapa Amornvivat, Ph.D. is Chief Economist and First Executive Vice President at Siam Commercial Bank. She has international work experience at IMF, ING Group and Booz, Allen, Hamilton. She received a BA from Harvard and a PhD from MIT. Email eic@scb.co.th. EIC Online.

A survey result in the Future of Jobs report by the World Economic Forum puts the expected timeframe for advanced robotics, autonomous transport as well as artificial intelligence and machine learning at around 2018-2020. It is certainly hard to tell if this vision will become reality as predicted. Asking this question a few weeks ago would have fetched a higher vote of confidence than today. The recent tragic incident with Tesla's autopilot system that failed to apply the brakes in response to a sudden turn of an 18-wheel tractor-trailer, showed that some tasks remain too complex and too intuitive for the most advanced technologies today.

Yet, to dismiss this trend would be a big mistake. Rapid technological advancements have cut the break-even points for the most popular auto robots used in China to only 1.7 years and less than half a year in metal manufacturing in Germany. Adding up all the benefits will stimulate interest across diverse industries to adopt robots. Experts predict that the market volume of automation will increase at least fourfold over the next 10 years.

What does this mean for Asean? This technological disruption means a potentially bumpy road ahead. This region has been in the spotlight for the promise of its young, populous labour force, along with their growing appetite for consumer goods, which in turn can ignite economic growth. But the threat of robots can tip the balance of this comparative advantage.

Multinational corporations operating in Asean might possibly substitute semi-skilled workers in manufacturing with robots and shift their labour-intensive production back home. Of Asean's population of 625 million people, at least 122 million people are currently employed in the four most vulnerable jobs to automation -- including administrative, secretarial, sales and machine operatives. Let's imagine what would happen if one million call-centre jobs in the Philippines -- one of the largest outsourced call centre destinations -- suddenly disappeared due to cyborg telemarketers, a more advanced version of Apple's Siri?

Without jobs, people will not have decent incomes to spend. The arrival of automation may cause the populous labour force to lose their jobs. These people may not translate to a large consumer base. Instead, they would become more of a burden on social welfare, widening the income gap between business owners and blue-collar workers.

Additionally, the prosperity concept has changed to "the fast fish eats the slow fish". Established firms that fail to ride the wave of technological innovation are exposed to high risks. Sharp and Toshiba's home appliances division, which have production facilities in Thailand, were recently acquired by foreign firms, Taiwan's Foxconn and China's Midea, respectively, partly because they were too slow to adapt.

The shortage of labour in Thailand today will act as a catalyst for earlier adoption of technology. The danger is that our fast-ageing workforce remains complacent until it is too late.

Then, how should we embrace the future of automation?

Automation is not all bad; it brings new opportunities for people who are adaptable to changes. We must ride this trend and figure out ways to co-exist with these technological revolutions. Robots can free workers from doing mundane tasks, motivating them to find newer and more exciting careers. Asked what the most promising industries are for job creation in the future, a survey by Citi Research reveals that the Top-3 consists of the IT sector, especially big data and artificial intelligence; the industrial sector, especially control systems and robotics; and the health and medical sector. These are highly skilled jobs.

There is certainly a big gap considering where we are today in terms of the skill set of our workforce. We need greater emphasis of on-the-job training to help improve the technical skills of existing workers. At the same time, we need to make sure that children in schools today have the right capabilities to be critical thinkers and innovators, telling those hard-working robots what to do. More emphasis on the STEM subjects -- science, technology, engineering, and mathematics -- will broaden career options in the age of human-machine interfacing. Training on soft skills, such as emotional empathy and leadership, is equally essential.

Not only do we need to encourage our teachers to provide relevant and high-quality lessons, but we also need to motivate parents and children to recognise the value of investments in education.

Are we late in the game? Now is the time to raise awareness of this technological revolution and to get all stakeholders involved in readying our future workforce for a new kind of human-robot relationship. Regardless of business size, preparing for mechanisation and artificial intelligence is a must.

Forward-thinking parents should inspire their children to become the next-generation leaders who are ready to face the complex tasks of dealing with automation. The more we prepare them, the more confident they will be when they enter this new working reality.

Sutapa Amornvivat


Sutapa Amornvivat, PhD, is CEO of SCB ABACUS, an advanced data analytics company under Siam Commercial Bank, where she previously headed the Economic Intelligence Center and the Risk Analytics Division. She received a BA from Harvard and a PhD from MIT. Email: SCBabacus@scb.co.th

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