While the idea of robots in the workplace is often associated with the displacement of human labour, experts say the opposite is in fact more likely to occur even as technological advances spur a rise in the deployment of machines, especially in the manufacturing industry.
For years, the world has been turning more and more to automation, especially in China where robots are now being used in delivery services as the Covid-19 pandemic fuels demand for contactless courier services.
In neighbouring Taiwan and South Korea, meanwhile, robots have been deployed in cafes, performing tasks such as preparing and serving food.
Such robots, known as collaborative robots or cobots, are very different from their traditional counterparts in the industrial sector.
Although concerns abound about robots taking over jobs and leading to massive unemployment, cobots are in fact designed to work alongside humans.
An example of a cobot is the UR5, created by Universal Robots and deployed, among others, at a bubble tea chain in Taiwan.
There, they are tasked with making drinks, serving customers, and cleaning up afterwards.
Speaking to MalaysiaNow, Universal Robot’s Asia-Pacific regional director James McKew said the rise of cobots would allow humans to opt for other jobs.
“Cobots relieve human employees from strenuous and repetitive tasks so that they can take on better, more exciting roles within the company,” he said.
He added that cobots could increase productivity and encourage upgrades in skillsets.
“In fact, a World Economic Forum study suggests that robots have the potential to create 58 million jobs globally in the next five years.”
Robots are more likely to be used in developed countries with an ageing workforce such as South Korea and Germany, which are among the world’s fastest adopters of robots based on the number of robots per human worker.
This could soon become an issue in Malaysia, too, which expects to become an ageing nation by 2030.
McKew also pointed to Singapore, which he said has the highest robot density by far with 918 units per 10,000 workers compared to Malaysia’s 34.
“Malaysia has become a prime target for robotics deployment,” he said. “In the age of collaborative automation, the job prospect in Malaysia remains promising as the job losses will be offset by the new labour demand.”
He also moved to allay fears, particularly in developing countries, about the adoption of robots in the workplace as an existential threat.
Referring to China, which he said was a pioneer in this area, he said the successful implementation of robots there demonstrates that they can be used to create new jobs instead of eliminating them.
“Now, China has a robot density of 187 units per 10,000 workers, ranking 15th in the manufacturing industry worldwide. As the world’s largest population in the world, the labour force in China is one of the most important factors driving economic growth,” he said.
Che Fai Yeong, an associate professor at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia’s School of Electrical Engineering, acknowledged that the use of robots would result in unemployment in certain job scopes.
However, he said this does not necessarily translate into a bad situation.
He said robots are mostly taking over low-skill, repetitive and boring jobs that human workers generally avoid.
“Humans are still in the equation to provide high-level guidance and precision tuning as these are not able to be performed by robots.
“Cobots are creating more new jobs including robot designers, programmers, maintenance, site engineers and system integrators, among others,” he said.
While many believe that automation will take over most aspects of jobs, he said, no machine will ever replace human dexterity, critical thinking, decision making, and creativity.