Learning to live with robots

Learning to live with robots

China's once-in-a-decade census data released last week make clear that the world's most populous country is ageing more rapidly than many developed nations, including the US. People of working age will make up just 60% of China's population in 2050, down from 75% in 2010, the figures show.

More alarmingly, Chinese women are expected to have just 1.3 children each over the course of their lives, one of the lowest fertility rates in the world. In 2019, only five countries -- South Korea, Singapore, Malta, Ukraine and Spain -- had lower rates, according to World Bank data. Last year, just 12 million babies were born in China, the lowest number since 1961.

The results of the census clearly indicate that the world's second largest economy faces an urgent demographic crisis. A shrinking working population is potentially devastating for a country that built its reputation as the world's factory on low labour costs, a strong supply chain and supportive tax system.

In recent years China has lost its labour-cost advantage, a trend that will continue as skilled workers become more scarce. The key to staying competitive will be advanced technology, including industrial automation, and optimising the way humans and robots work together.

Upgrading the skills of the current workforce and migrants, estimated at 300 million people, will make the world's manufacturing powerhouse more powerful.

And amid the protracted Covid pandemic, the nature of work unavoidably has to change. To reduce the risks inherent in human interaction, robots fit the bill. In the US, the Association for Advancing Automation reported this month that purchases of industrial robots grew nearly 20% year-on-year in the first quarter. Significantly, most went to companies outside the automotive sector. Orders by consumer companies rose 32%.

The pandemic has motivated hotels, restaurants and other consumer-facing, "high-touch" companies to build social distancing into their business models, possibly resulting in fewer employees.

In India, where Covid cases and deaths rank second only after the US, a ping pong robot was imported from Germany as a practice partner for a table tennis player who couldn't find a human opponent during the lockdown. If the world of sport is ready to embrace such an innovation, surely others will consider automation too.

While no one can predict the future, we can certainly see robots touch virtually every aspect of life. The integration of engineering design and technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning is opening up a new frontier. Robots have taken on a significant role in industry, but are increasingly found in other areas.

In the healthcare field, robotic devices now assist surgeons with the help of AI. Robots are conducting minimally invasive operations, and can be used in more complex procedures to make precisely targeted incisions that limit bleeding.

Increasingly, robots are supporting humans at work and in their personal lives. They can teach, entertain, help care for the elderly and infirm, and in some cases, serve as close and compassionate companions in a world made more lonely by lockdowns.

Robotics and advanced technologies could be harnessed to help solve important challenges from ageing societies and environmental threats to global conflicts. As robots' abilities evolve beyond our expectations, our jobs will change dramatically.

Companies are developing their AI and robotics expertise in the hope of cutting costs, increasing efficiency and enabling new business models. The Boston Consulting Group estimates that more than US$67 billion will be spent worldwide in the robotics sector by 2025, compared to only $11 billion in 2005.

One lingering concern about robots is that robots replace human jobs. Clearly, that is already happening in some instances, but one must consider the broader perspective. Oxford Economics has estimated that up to 20 million manufacturing jobs worldwide could be replaced by robots by 2030. However, it noted that increasing automation will also boost jobs and economic growth.

A World Economic Forum report also supports this assumption. It estimates that "52% of current job tasks will be replaced by 2025, and automation would eliminate 75 million jobs by 2022", primarily in the services sector. Nonetheless, it said that a "robot revolution would create a net 58 million new jobs over the next five years".

Regardless of one's position on robots, one point is clear: we humans must learn to adapt. What is equally important, in my view, is that we never stop improving ourselves so that we won't fall amid the rise of the machines.

Nareerat Wiriyapong

Acting Asia Focus Editor

Acting Asia Focus Editor

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