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Will robot co-workers join you at work soon?

According to the International Federation of Robotics’ report late last year, 2015 saw a whopping 15% increase in sales of robot units across the world, by far the highest level ever recorded for one year.

tech Updated: Feb 22, 2017 14:47 IST
Joyeeta Biswas
For every 10,000 people employed, South Korea currently employs 347 robots, Japan 339 and Germany 261 robots
For every 10,000 people employed, South Korea currently employs 347 robots, Japan 339 and Germany 261 robots(REUTERS file Photo)

Move over humans, the robot revolution is here.

Even as a debate rages worldwide over the danger technology poses to employment rates, with Microsoft founder Bill gates recently saying that robots stealing human jobs should pay income tax, the surge in their use at workplaces seems unstoppable.

According to the International Federation of Robotics’ report late last year, 2015 saw a whopping 15% increase in sales of units across the world, by far the highest level ever recorded for one year.

The trend is led by industrial powerhouses Japan, South Korea and Germany that dominate the list of nations with the greatest robot density. For every 10,000 people employed, South Korea employs 347 robots, Japan, with its thriving robotics industry, employs 339 and Germany, Europe’s most prosperous nation, employs 261.

The electronics industry, metal industry, and the chemical, plastics and rubber industry are the main drivers of the growth in demand.

Only one other Asian country - Taiwan - made it to the list of top 10 nations with the greatest robot density, but China is fast catching up. By way of sheer numbers, the country has dominated the market for robots since 2013 and significantly expanded its leading position with a share of 27% of the total supply in 2015. What’s more, its government aims for the big leagues, recently announcing its intention to increase its domestic production to 100,000 robots in the next three years as well as to boost its density from the present 36 to 150.

As for India, robot sales slightly decreased to about 2,100 units in 2015, the report said. The level of industrial automation in the country remains at a miniscule level compared with the US or Japan, but when other kinds of robotics applications - such as smartphones with artificial intelligence (AI) - are taken into account, India ranks as one of the fastest growing and most exciting markets in the world. Last year, Panasonic India announced that it would spend $10 million to develop technology to integrate AI with its handsets.

But this isn’t all good news.

Renowned scientist Stephen Hawking had words of caution, when he pointed out how the automation of factories has decimated jobs in traditional manufacturing. “The rise of artificial intelligence is likely to extend this job destruction deep into the middle classes, with only the most caring, creative or supervisory roles remaining,” he said.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk recently echoed these concerns, warning that the rise in use of robots would lead to mass unemployment. “This is going to be a massive social challenge. There will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better (than a human). These are not things that I wish will happen.”

Scientists have also pointed out other dangers, such as the rise of e-waste and increased vulnerability to hacking.

But Abdul Jaleel, vice-president of People Resources India, Adobe, expressed optimism about the impending effect of automation on India’s industries. “The future of work looks promising, as robotics and automation gear up to enable employees to be more productive and creative in their roles,” he said.

No matter which side of the debate you fall on, one thing’s for certain - not long from now, you may be working alongside your very own robot colleague. Chats around the coffee machine may look a little different.