BUILDING & ENGINEERING, HR & EDUCATION | Contributed Content, Singapore
Vivek Kumar

Robots and us: Collaborate or compete?


Recently I was invited to join the DHL Robotics Day 2016 with some outstanding fellow keynote speakers from ABB, DHL, and NTU.

A few questions emerged as top-voted by the delegates for our panel. The pattern was consistent –

"Should we fear robots? Are they going to walk away with our jobs? What can we do today to make ourselves future-ready?"

Let's first look at the larger trends around Robotics.

  1. Robots are joining the workforce in substantial numbers. In 2014 alone 229,000 robots were sold worldwide. This marked an increase of 29% over the previous year. International Federation of Robotics estimates there are 1.5 million operational industrial robots at our workplaces today.
  2. Asia is a big adopter: Although robot density is still the lowest in Asia, 60% of global robot sales in 2014 came from Asia-Pacific. China, Japan, and South Korea are among the top five markets globally, USA and Germany completing the group.
  3. Robots in services sector: Rong Heng Seafood restaurant at East Coast Seafood Centre now deploys five robots to deliver dishes to the waiting diners, entertain them with some dancing, and do a gig on Happy Birthday songs. Singapore Budget 2016 included a $450 million expansion to the National Robotics Programme. While automotive and electrical/electronic industries consistently top the share of installed robots globally, robots are also making a significant debut in services industry.

So what impact are these developments likely to have on our jobs and working people?

"We are perhaps at a unique point in history when a multitude of forces are reshaping our workplaces. We need to really work at it to stay ahead of the curve."

While it is difficult for anyone to predict an accurate future scenario, a few threads emerged from our panel.

  1. Cobots could be the next breakthrough. Collaborative robots, or cobots as some call them, present a huge opportunity for humans to work together with robots. So, it may end up being not a competition but more of a collaboration.
  2. Robotics = ESS? The Labour Movement believes our working people should have Easier, Safer, Smarter or ESS workplaces. In many cases, the industrial robots can take over the dirty, repetitive, and physically challenging or dangerous work, thus making jobs ESS for the humans working alongside the robots.
  3. Autonomous AI-enabled robots are still years away. Industrial and services robots managing well-defined actions are indeed a reality today. But, a robot who would do the house chores, drive/accompany us to office, and work alongside us in office, could be years away.

In my view, we have reasons to be curious and excited about the future. Just as there are reasons to be worried. Yet, as the World Economic Forum report on Future of Jobs said in 2016, we are likely to create more than three new jobs for every lost job in ASEAN by 2020.

"Being future-ready means a keenness to track the trends, identify industries which are likely to be employers of tomorrow, pick up deep skills though training and experience, go for continuous skills upgrade, and develop a personal branding."

Think of our mobile handset – we hardly used to upgrade its software just a decade ago. Today, our handset and many of the applications installed in it upgrade themselves almost every month. Shouldn't we replicate such continuous upgrades for our skills too?

Sounds good, you’d say, but just how realistic is it?

When such thoughts weigh me down, I look at examples of working people who've done so, to inspire myself.

One of NTUC May Day Inspirational Worker awards 2016 winner is Ms. Giam Siew Chu. She joined the workforce after her secondary school. With a deep passion to progress in her career, she went for an English language proficiency course and subsequently completed her NITEC in mechanical technology.

She didn't stop there. She continued to progress through Singapore Aero Engine Services (SAESL) and graduated with a Higher Certificate in Aerospace. She is a qualified Aircraft Technician with SAESL today, highly valued by her employers and her union – Singapore Industrial and Services Employees' Union (SISEU).

So, what could we do to stay ahead of the game? Here are some tips:

  • Ambiguity and curiosity: The panel agreed that the critical mindset for us to adopt is to stay curious. Be willing to experience the thrill of the unknown, savour any sense of ambiguity. This is something a robot cannot do.
  • Experiment: There is absolutely no replacement for a hands-on experience. Stay hungry to join programmes which would let you 'learn by doing'. There are such opportunities around now, such as One Maker Group's studio at National Design Center, or a range of android and iOS mobile app development courses at NTUC LearningHub. Singapore citizens can use their $500 SkillsFuture Credit at some such courses and NTUC members can get additional $250 in Union Training Assistance Programme (UTAP) every year.
  • If you're interested in robotics, pick up a training course: NTUC e2i organises courses on robotics with up to 70% funding support for Singaporeans – let's make the best of such available programs.

I ended my keynote with a sombre thought.

"If we fail to together achieve this breakthrough, and we end up with a lost generation of workers, we must be very conscious that our businesses would also have a lost generation of customers."

This transition at the workplaces is not easy for our working people. Much as the Labour Movement, our Unions and U Associates, government, and employers work together with our working people to upgrade their skills, many of us as hiring managers would have a big role to play.

We should be willing to prioritise valuable skills, a positive and can-do mindset, over age. Let's support the employees as they make specific efforts to upskill themselves and move to higher value creating jobs. 

The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Singapore Business Review. The author was not remunerated for this article.

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Vivek Kumar

Vivek Kumar

Vivek is Director of U Associate & U Future Leaders programmes, National Trades Union Congress. He is the Honorary Chairman of Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) Council in Asia-Pacific and keynote speaker at industry conferences around the region.

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