The industrial revolution brought about the steam engine and heralded the new modern age of technology for our society. We live in relative comfort today compared to our ancestors of less than a century. We can travel to England in 12 hours instead of three months today, among other conveniences of modern life.
Since then, we have seen the rise of computers in our laptop, mobile phones and even wearables such as the Apple Watch. Amidst all these rapid changes in society, there is an under-appreciated revolution which I shall name The Robot Revolution. It is a global phenomenon that is slowly and steadily gaining traction, especially in Singapore, China and Japan.
Here’s how this trend will affect our lifestyles and the labour market in these countries.
In Singapore, the motivation for robotics would be the requirement for productivity growth. This is especially the case where labour cost is higher in the region and there is government push for higher productivity from the 2010 Economic Strategies Committee. This productivity push has been generally disappointing and the government is not letting up on its clamp down on cheaper foreign labour. Hence, businesses have to resort to robotics.
One popular restaurant chain, The Timber Group, set the ball rolling in February 2015 when it rolled out flying helicopter drones to serve as waiters. This caught the attention of the international media and it was reported as far out as the UK.
This drone waiter is developed by Singapore startup Infinium Robotics and it is known as Infinium-Serve.
While Timber still has human waiters to serve on the last mile (lifting the wine glass and putting it in front of patrons), it is clear that it would require less waiters per restaurant. Waiters can also be more productive as they can cut down on travelling time and focus on taking orders — on iPad, not paper. This is a perfect way to cut down on business cost, improve productivity and work around the labor restriction.
The robotics revolution is not confined to the workplace alone. It can also be seen at home. Nowadays, technology has advanced to the stage where you don’t have to sweep your own floors. All you need is a little iRobot gadget.
It will automatically sweep the floor for you with its sensors and sweepers, and once its battery is spent, it will return to its docking station for recharging. This is one less household chore for us and less costly for those who are employing part-time maids.
While this is the present-day reality of robotics, let us look at the future of robotics in Singapore.
If you boarded the bus here today, you will be greeted by a bus captain. However, don’t be too surprised if there are no humans driving the bus 20 years from now. In October 2015, the Ministry of Transport (MOT) has announced its ambitious plan of having driverless vehicles or autonomous vehicles become a common sight on the roads, by 2030. Currently, there are tests taking place in Sentosa, One-North and other parts of Singapore.
The MOT has visualised a future where instead of having 10 truck drivers for 10 trucks, there will only be one truck driver who will lead 10 trucks.
This is good news for the lucky driver who is retained while the other nine drivers will be retrenched. As these technologies mature over the next two decades, drivers recruitment will gradually go down in Singapore. Local drivers are likely to retain their contracts, but foreign drivers are likely to be sent home once their contract is done and not renewed.
China has taken to rapid robotics adoption due to the problem of an aging population as a result of the two-decade implementation of the one-child policy. It has recognised this problem and ended the restriction this year, but the damage has been done. Young people are not having babies as it is expensive to rear a child these days, especially in the cities.
It is common sense that when the supply of labour goes up, the price of labour will go up as the demand remains constant. Major corporations are responding by cutting down their demand of labour by replacing them with robots.
Chinese property giant Vanke has announced that it will develop its own robots to replace humans as sweepers, security guards and drivers. These are low-level and menial jobs that can be done by robots.
Guangzhou, the manufacturing ground zero for China, is also joining the fray. Faced with rising labour cost, it is aiming to automate 80 per cent of its manufacturing by 2020. In order to do so, it is organising a robotics exhibition in June 2016 for international manufacturers to showcase their products.
Chinese factories are embracing these technologies wholeheartedly. While they used to employ 26 workers before, the same job can be done by two workers and with better quality. Robots are getting cheaper and it takes only 1.3 years to recoup their cost now, instead of the 11.8 years it took in 2008.
Japan is aiming to be the chief supplier of robotics in the world by 2020. While the issue of aging population is serious in China, it is more acute in Japan. Japan has an even higher labour cost than China, so its role is to produce very high-end products such as robotics, which require heavy investment in industrial research and development.
While Japan is trying to corner this US$22 billion robotics market, China is not sitting back. Its government is encouraging local enterprises to compete with the likes of Panasonic in Japan. This is still a work in progress, but it is only a matter of time before the ‘Alibaba’ of Chinese robotics comes out to play.
There is no escaping from robotics, anymore. Menial and low-value jobs are being rapidly replaced by robots. There will be much trial and error but like Timber’s adoption of flying drones, it is only a matter of time before robots play an integral part in our society.
The views expressed here are of the author’s, and e27 may not necessarily subscribe to them. e27 invites members from Asia’s tech industry and startup community to share their honest opinions and expert knowledge with our readers. If you are interested in sharing your point of view, please send us an email at writers[at]e27[dot]co