China must prepare for potential social issues resulting from increasing use of robots

By Xiao Xin Source:Global Times Published: 2017/6/15 22:23:39

China should be well prepared for the large-scale use of robots as the diminishing demographic dividend, rising labor costs and the country's transition toward a high-end manufacturing power offer substantial grounds for machines replacing human workers.

In addition to efforts by domestic robotics firms to operate at full capacity to meet increasing demand, there will be a great many tasks for the country to make breakthroughs in core robotics technologies and to avoid social issues resulting from the workforce automation trend.

As the world's top producer of industrial robots, China is known for its capacity to crank out robots, with data from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) on Wednesday showing that the country produced 10,057 industrial robots in May, up 47.3 percent year-on-year. In the first five months of the year, the figure soared 50.4 percent from the year before to 44,360, according to the NBS.

This arguably makes the case for the use of larger numbers of industrial robots in factories around the country. While the replacement of workers by robots is mostly seen in only a certain number of regions at the moment - particularly the Pearl River Delta and the Yangtze River Delta - it is anticipated that more areas will soon be joining the trend. Statistics from the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) reveal that China has already taken the lead globally in installing robots. A total of 90,000 industrial robots were installed in China in 2016, an increase of 31 percent from the previous year, outperforming the global annual growth of 14 percent.

Nevertheless, the domestic robotics sector remains relatively weak in terms of core technologies such as servo motors and speed reducers - areas that make up the majority of robot production costs. This means it is still foreign robotics firms in possession of the key technologies that benefit most, in terms of profits, from the rise of robotics in China. It is thus evident that domestic robotics businesses must spare no effort to ramp up research and development, so that as well as quantitative dominance they can lead in terms of technologies and profits.

Also worth noting is that while robots help in reducing labor costs and are considered more efficient than humans, the growing prevalence of robots has fueled concerns in society about potential automation-driven layoffs. Considering that even unskilled people go to work not just to earn a salary but also to take satisfaction in getting something done, the government should contemplate plans well ahead of time to address various worries arising from the future of a highly automated country.

The author is a reporter with the Global Times.


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