How Will Robots Shape Future Labour Markets?

Updated: Nov 15, 2019

By Waqas Ghazi

The Digital Pakistan Policy 2018 [1] issued by the Federal Ministry of IT and Telecom plans for the establishment of specialized innovation centers for capacity building in robotics. But where are the robots?



In the year 1495, Leonardo Da Vinci displayed the first “Automaton” in Milan[2]. Since then, surely and steadily, many nations of the world have pursued a future of automation. Robot density measures the number of robots per 10,000 workers in the industry[3]. The International Federation of Robotics[4] recorded a rise in robot density globally in 2016. The Republic of Korea is the most automated country with 631 robots per 10,000 workers followed by Singapore, Germany, Japan, and Sweden. Nations such as the USA, China, and Korea spend hefty amounts on R&D in robotics towards military applications[5].

In most countries, the most automated industry tends to be the automotive industry. In fact, it was the automotive industry of the USA which pushed robotics adoption in the 1950s[6]. In more recent years, the electronics industry has seen a sharp rise in process automation. In 2018, the USA saw more non-automotive companies installing robots than ever before.[7] Other sectors which have been automated recently are logistics; Alibaba, for example, has almost no workers in some of its warehouses[8]. It is expected that robots will make their way into the household as well and many banal tasks may become automated. The market of collaborative robots (or cobots) has also grown in recent years.

Pakistan lags far behind in this global quest for robots:

The continued energy crisis has always deterred companies from setting up design/manufacturing facilities in Pakistan. There is no significant design, development or even manufacturing of modern cutting-edge consumer electronics, hence an absence of design and manufacturing support services that serve as the building blocks of robotics technologies. Mr. Sheheryar Zahid[9], an expert in the field of robotics, working with General Electric USA, says that Pakistan is an example where there are strong barriers to the development and adoption of modern robotics. For example, the National Centre of Robotics and Automation is a consortium of 11 labs over 13 universities with its headquarters at NUST College of E&ME.[10] It collaborates with different ministries for R&D. Many universities offer degrees in mechatronics and robotics but a lack of private investment and commercial applications means that there are few jobs in the sector. Most professionals simply leave the country.

Robotics emerged out of the industrial need for efficiency. The advancement in robotics is divided into 4 generations[11] (excluding the zeroth generation which is considered pre-robotics generation). The first generation (1950-1967) consists of simple manipulators to perform simple repeatable tasks. The second generation (1968-1977) consists of ‘sensorized’ robots which can respond to their environment. The third generation 1978 – 1999 saw the development of the re-programmable robot and led to accelerated industrial automation. The fourth generation is the generation of AI integration, with an emphasis on smarter machines. And all indications point towards robotics expansion in consumer applications.


Will the emergence of robotics replace manpower with robots?


Dr. Muhammad Shemyal Nisar[12] says that the government needs to balance the rate of automation with human capital. “Governments should be cautious of robotics adoption if it will create more unemployment”. Similar fears haunted the world in the 19th and 20th centuries when the world moved towards mechanization or early robotics adoption[13]. One dimension to these fears is mechanical (process driven) which fundamentally covers robots which can perform somewhat advanced movements and actions. The more complex and fluid such movements are, the more advanced the robot is considered. For some reason, the complexity of movement does not position robots as rivals to humans. The prevailing view amongst academia is that the automation in the 19th and 20th centuries did not result in joblessness (Autor, 2015)[14]. Another dimension to the fear of robotics is the intelligent robot (data driven). Animating a robot or a machine to such an extent where it can learn, react and adjust to the changes in environment somehow positions robots with AI (or AI itself) as a rival to humans. Ray Kurzweil[15] has since long contended the same and has named the event where technology and humanity will merge as ‘singularity’. Arntz, Gregory, and Zierahn (2017)[16] contend that many fears regarding the unemployment caused by AI/robotics adoption are baseless. They propose that the exposed workforce will still be able to do many tasks in which the machines or AI replacing them will not be able to perform.

The reality is that robots, in essence, are an extension of the assembly line. Just like the assembly line, robots will drive up economic efficiency. And just like the assembly line, robotics will surely create unintended consequences in the transitory period. The policy question to answer first is whether Pakistan should choose the path of efficiency, or should be giving in to the fear of uncertainty. The Pakistani people have been paying the price of the tech policy lags since the 1970s, when government priorities shifted from economic efficiency towards in favor of employment goals. With the high level of economic politicization in the working class, any policy which overtly supplements the growth of process automation will be broadly opposed.

Some policy incentives for robotics adoption exist in the economy:


Foremost of these is the minimum wage, which directly puts the human worker in competition with robots, and makes the worker ‘more replaceable’. This, however, is the wrong kind of incentive, akin to the broken window fallacy, and the government is putting citizens artificially at risk.

The foremost step to overcome policy barriers in the automation of the manufacturing and service economy is to mitigate public fears. Some experts have recommended the adoption of a universal basic income in the wake of structural unemployment during the adoption transition period.

Before sound robotic technologies can be developed or manufactured in Pakistan, the commercial sector must have an incentive to adopt them. Lowering import barriers on robots will enhance demand for them.

Lowering export barriers and costs will cultivate the ground for domestic development of demand driven technologies. To improve the commercial viability of domestic research ventures, the public sector must clear the way for private sector contributions to robotics R&D. Till the time that the government controls the lion’s share of R&D funding in robotics, the economic focus of the country will continue to linger on commercially unviable ventures. Another significant part of this equation is immigration policy. Since R&D investments produce experts who are low in demand domestically, it would be reasonable to allow experts and professionals from abroad who have domestically demanded appropriate skill sets.

Most importantly, our government must let go of traditionally derived notions differentiating robotics from other forms of technology. By decoupling AI, assembly line automation and robotics, the government has essentially created a complex environment for technological innovation, where the policy provides excessive opportunity and space for regulatory intervention in private business models.

It is suggested that bureaucrats are among the least equipped stakeholders to derive sophisticated tech policy and that new policies must come as a result of private sector consultation and collaboration efforts. The government of Pakistan would do well to provide a platform for relevant stakeholders to come together for this purpose. Otherwise, robotics and similar industries will never find a home in Pakistan.

LIST OF REFERENCES:

[1] http://moib.gov.pk/Downloads/Policy/DIGITAL_PAKISTAN_POLICY(22-05-2018).pdf


[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leonardo%27s_robot


[3] https://ifr.org/ifr-press-releases/news/robot-density-rises-globally


[4] Ibid 11


[5] https://foreignpolicy.com/2014/05/05/the-looming-robotics-gap/


[6] Zamalloa, I., Kojcev, R., Hernández, A., Muguruza, I., Usategui, L., Bilbao, A. and Mayoral, V., 2017. Dissecting robotics-historical overview and future perspectives. arXiv preprint arXiv:1704.08617.


[7] https://www.therobotreport.com/robot-shipments-record-high-us/


[8] https://www.cnbc.com/2018/10/30/alibaba-cainiao-chinas-biggest-robot-warehouse-for-singles-day.html


[9] MSc Electronics, Communication and Computer Engineering @ university of Nottingham UK; B.ENG Electronics Engineering @ University of Hull UK; currently working at GE Healthcare in USA


[10] http:// ncra.org.pk


[11] E. Robotics, “Envisioning robotics,” Official Webpage, April 2017. [Online]. Available: http://erlerobotics.com/envisioning-robotics


[12] PhD in Optical Engineering; currently doing post-doctorate in Biomedical Engineering @ Nanjing University, China


[13] Ibid 23


[14] Autor, D. H. (2015). Why Are There Still So Many Jobs? The History and Future of Workplace Automation. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 29(3), 3–30.


[15] Kurzweil, Ray. (2006) The singularity is near: when humans transcend biology New York, Penguin


[16] Arntz, M., Gregory, T. and Zierahn, U., 2017. Revisiting the risk of automation. Economics Letters, 159, pp.157-160.

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