The World Manufacturing Convention held at the end of last month in Hefei, East China's Anhui Province brought a focus on the revolution the factory sector is undergoing, especially in China. As the world enters the fourth industrial revolution, questions have arisen about how artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics will shape the future of our social structure when it comes to jobs and the role of humans in general in a more technological environment.
According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), there will be more than 1.7 million new industrial robots installed worldwide by 2020, bringing the total to 3.1 million.
The drive to integrate robotics in our industry is based on various factors. One is to free human beings from routine jobs, dirty ones, or jobs that involve risk. Purely economic concerns are also important; robots can be more efficient in production and can avoid the rising cost of employing human beings.
The world has not only embraced the concept of robotics as the way forward, but is also considering how to build a society in which we as humans have a purpose and a place, even as machines, robots and smart devices become more ubiquitous.
From a purely economic point of view, robots offer efficiency and lower costs, and for that reason governments across the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and emerging Asian economies have been implementing aggressive policies and programs to support investment in robotics and AI.
This is the economy of the future, and two major regions are taking the lead: OECD countries and Asian powerhouses such as China.
The OECD bloc had the prime position among the users of automated machines from 1993 to 2017, with Germany, South Korea, Japan and the US leading the way. This can be seen in terms of robotic density statistics in comparison with the human population, which is de-fined as the number of robots in use per 10,000 employees. In South Korea, this number was 631 in 2016, followed by Germany with 309. Japan had 303 and the US about 189.
Besides the OECD bloc, Asian countries and China in particular have recognized the importance of robotics in future development. This vision was made clear in the Made in China 2025 strategy. One of the plan's objectives is to expand the country's industrial robotics sector.
According to the IFR, China is currently the world's biggest market for robots with 30 percent of the total supply in 2016 - equivalent to the total sales volume of Europe and the Americas combined.
Singapore, with a robotics density of 488, is also a leading nation in Asia when it comes to robotics adoption.
But what will be the social impact and what role will humans have in the robotic era? Also, what plans do we have to train our workforce today for a new set of skills, and future generations for future jobs?
Our schools, universities, and government specialists in education should take a good look and rethink the curriculum. We do not have a long time to study this; progress in this area must match the rapid pace at which automation is taking hold.
We cannot look back at the introduction of computers and use that as a reference in our planning. The tech adoption rate and dissemination at that time was far slower than today, which gave us more room to reshuffle our employment strategies. Today, we do not have the luxury of time.
From a global point of view, we need to reassess human roles.
We ought to start talking about a shared destiny and repartition of global incomes, in order to make sure that we all make this leap into an automated future.
There is a risk of not only creating a gap in technology, but also a social gap between countries living in harmony and peace with robots and AI as the main driver of their growth, while other nations are left in even poorer circumstances than before - such nations missed the first industrial revolution and should not miss the fourth as well.
Let's see how the social debate will move forward, because the economic debate is over: Robots are already here.