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Send in the robots: Human workers the next endangered species?

During one World AI Show panel discussion, Dr. Yeong Che Fai observed that reception towards robotics and automation has been slowly getting warmer over the years, but the pandemic actually accelerated demand for these technologies, the last few months in Malaysia.

The co-founder and director of DF Automation and Robotics saw how the industry realised the relevance of robotics and automation as alternatives for human workers in factories and healthcare.

But with economies in lockdown and borders shut closed, the response in Malaysia had been to look locally for solutions. A taskforce led by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MOSTI) brought together industry players and academia to brainstorm, but it was not long before gaps were detected in the nation’s robotics readiness.

A line up of funding initiative by the likes of MOSTI to MITI to MTDC do exist, but now there is actually real urgency to accelerate our readiness in the area of robotics, automation and IR4.0 technologies, overall.

Dr.Yeong observed that these technologies are still in infancy in Malaysia.

The other side of the coin

With the promise of AI, robotics, and other IR4.0 technologies in the horizon, it seemed apt for Khazanah Nasional’s Corporate Development Centre (CDC) CEO, Shahryn Azmi to caution about a potential workforce displacement, in a later presentation.

Reskilling is one way to approach this possible displacement but when one starts to peel back the layers, reskilling a workforce is not as straightforward as it may seem.

One large challenge is the fact that ageism does exist. Reskilling does not address, ageism, or discrimination against an individual due to their age.

As you take a person in their forties out of a (job), where are they going to fit? This is one possible scenario likely to happen as automation technologies like autonomous vehicles are being trialled and tested in some parts of the world. Not only is development of the technology promising but there is keen interest in autonomous vehicles, as organisations seek to replicate human roles like driving with these kinds of technologies.

“If you look at the US, a country where food and everything, move from state to state on highways by truckers, you are looking at hundreds if not thousands of truckers per state, out of work… you can see the socio-economic issues coming down the line,” Shahryn pointed out.

One Malaysian example from two years ago, is when the North-South highway went 100-percent electronic. “Overnight, 3000 toll collectors were out of work. And yes, they could be moved on to something else, but bear in mind that for 15 years, these individuals have done nothing except collect toll money, and that is not a 4th industrial revolution skill,” he said.

Facing and planning for the issue

It is not all doom and gloom however, and he observed, “The solution is about recognising there will be employment disruption, and taking the right measures to address it.”

The cautionary tone throughout his presentation is meant for an industry that currently is in a little bit of denial.

“For the most part, generally we aren’t able to see what’s coming, mostly don’t want to hear what’s going to be the coming, so for sure we definitely don’t want to talk about it, either.”

This has to change especially now as we enter what could be called a low-touch economy, where automation and robotics may be called upon to fill the gaps.