The debate as to whether or not robots will completely replace menial and low-skill jobs has been going on for a long time now. However, China is now saying that AI and automation will indeed replace some jobs, but it will not be as catastrophically damaging as speculated.
This statement comes from a report published by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a national think tank. The report is also cited to state that low-skilled workers won’t be directly rendered obsolete, but will instead be transferred to other jobs.
As a nation that aspires to be the world’s strongest manufacturing power by 2020, China has been developing and adopting robots in different industries at an accelerated rate. Another factor that is driving this adoption is the fact that China is now facing the issue of an aging population and a shrinking workforce.
Certain e-commerce and logistics companies such as Alibaba and JD.com have constructed high-tech warehouses that accommodate automation and robotics to allow for more efficient storage and delivery robots.
Restaurants and hotels throughout the country have also installed service robots, delivering food to people’s tables and rooms. Some cities also started using police robots, which patrol the streets, snap photos of dangerous drivers, and alert people who are jaywalking.
Industrial robots that help boost manufacturing power are also widely used. In 2018 alone, China had installed 154,032 industrial robots according to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR). This is quite a number more than the combined total of industrial robots in Europe and the Americas.
However, due to a relatively outsized workforce, China still lags behind in terms of robot density; which is the number of industrial robots deployed for every 10,000 manufacturing workers. In 2019, China had 97 robots for every 10,000 industrial worker. This is far behind the US which has 200 and South Korea’s 710, according to the IFR. By the end of 2020, China hopes to raise its numbers to 150.
A good number of China’s population believes that there are huge benefits to a more automated workforce. Many also believe that more jobs would be created than jobs being lost. In a 2019 survey, UK digital marketing firm Dentsu Aegis Network found that 65 percent of Chinese respondents think that AI and robotics will help create more jobs instead of taking them.
Unfortunately, this is not always true. Foxconn, a key manufacturing partner for electronics manufacturers such as Apple, cut around 60,000 jobs in a factory in the eastern city of Kunshan in 2016 while installing robots. The southern city of Dongguan, one of China’s manufacturing hubs, has cut its manufacturing workforce by 280,000 and installed 91,000 robots in the past five years.
Another report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences also said that during China’s 13th Five-Year-Plan (which ends this year), robots and other AI applications will have taken roughly 8 million to 10 million manufacturing jobs from migrant workers, averaging 1.6 million to 2 million per year.
Overall, the long-term outlook remains relatively positive. Economists are estimating that by 2037, AI and related technologies could create up to 12 percent more jobs, according to a PwC report from September 2018. That would mean an additional 93 million jobs.
PwC also predicts that AI related technologies could displace up to 26 percent of existing jobs in the country over the next two decades; but that the income generated from the increased efficiency of robots will generate an additional 38 percent in jobs.
But even positive projections point to one possibly glaring problem: Inequality. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences suggests levying a tax on the use of robots to fund retraining workers threatened by automation. It’s an idea promoted by Bill Gates and already in place in South Korea.