Why Southeast Asian Countries Are Leading the Robot Adoption Race

Europe and the US lag significantly behind

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Robots are indeed coming for our jobs, and it's a good thing. For this could lead to higher gross domestic product, creation of new jobs, and a boost in productivity and living standards. Those are some of the observations made in a report by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a leading international science and technology think tank.

The report, "Which Nations Really Lead in Industrial Robot Adoption?", which examined 27 countries, says Southeast Asian nations significantly outperform the rest of the world in wage-controlled robot adoption, while Europe and the United States lag significantly behind. Korea leads the race; it adopted 710 robots per 10,000 workers in 2017, followed by Singapore (658 robots per 10,000 workers), and Germany (322 robots). Japan and Sweden complete the top five, with 308 and 240, respectively. The US ranked seventh with 200 industrial robots, while Russia (four) and India (three) ranked last.

The growing interest

From a global perspective, the average for industrial robots per 10,000 manufacturing workers grew from 66 robots in 2015 to 74 robots in 2016, to 85 in 2017, according to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR).

When it comes to the ranking of expected robot adoption rates to actual rates, the report said Southeast Asian nations occupied six of the top seven positions in the ranking. Korea leads the world with 2.4 times more robots adopted than expected, followed by Singapore, Thailand, China, and Taiwan. Japan ranks seventh with 27 percent higher adoption rates than expected, says the report. The Commonwealth nations, the report adds, lag behind significantly, with Canada ranking 14th, the UK 23rd, and Australia 24th.

The rush

So what's driving the growth? Wealth is one of the key reasons. The Chinese government, for instance, aims to expand its robot use tenfold by 2025 as part of its Robotics Industry Development Plan, and has pumped in massive amounts of money to subsidize adoption of robots and other automation technology.

Some of the other Southeast nations have also established national goals and strategies to support robotics innovation and robot adoption. Korea has its Intelligent Robot Development and Promotion Act of 2008, the purpose of which is to "contribute to the enhancement of the quality of life of citizens and the national economy by establishing and promoting a policy for the sustainable development of the intelligent robot industry to facilitate the development and distribution of intelligent robots and lay down the foundation therefore". Japan, meanwhile, established a goal to realize a "new industrial revolution driven by robots" in 2014.

Be positive

Culture may also play a role, says the report. "As many of these nations have distinctly positive views of robots (Japan has an annual Robot Award, for instance); while many of the societies that are lagging in their relative rates of robot adoption appear to have significant portions of their populations, or at least significant shares of their elites, who view robots as unsafe job killers."

In a January article on the World Economic Forum website, University of Manchester professor's Tony Dundon and Debra Howcroft write that while automation may replace some jobs, the technology rarely acts as a substitute for people. "Instead, jobs become codified and reduced to a narrow range of de-skilled tasks. Technology is deeply connected to relations of power and tends not to wipe away inequalities in a society, but builds on existing inequalities."