Robots cannot replace the human touch

While I agree with Mr Andy Mukherjee that workers in some industries risk being replaced by robots, I am not alarmed by the phenomenon, which continues to alter the industrial landscape ("Fear all working robots, not just big bionic arms"; July 1).

Having worked in the engineering business for over 45 years, I disagree that a technological revolution necessarily causes a net loss in jobs.

For example, the demise of vinyl records and cellulose film did not cause the complete collapse of the music or optics industries.

Rather, new sectors such as online music distribution and digital imaging sprang up to take their place, creating new employment in the process.

In this manner, human ingenuity has always found a healthy equilibrium on the road of technological development. It has struck a balance between the replacement or rationalisation of obsolescent industries, and the creation of entirely new knowledge-based fields that offset the initial blow to the workforce.

Moreover, certain applications remain beyond the capabilities of our most advanced robots. The machines currently at work in automotive factories and industrial production lines operate under a precise, detailed and, above all, rigid set of instructions. They possess neither the soft skills needed for human interaction nor the cross-disciplinary dynamism required for problem solving.

Attempts to simulate this "human touch" through artificial intelligence are currently in their infancy, and would appear to remain that way for the foreseeable future.

One significant obstacle is the "uncanny valley" effect, whereby the mimicking of human behaviour by computers or robotics causes unease in their users.

Additionally, creative thinking is difficult to replicate via software programming that is, by its very nature, limited and inflexible.

Robots are costly and expensive to maintain. When they malfunction, it could end in chaos. Thus, human personnel will remain a necessity, especially in service-oriented lines of work.

I am confident that the adoption of advanced robotics will instead bring about positive lifestyle changes. Just as the adoption of prime movers and computerised databases has brought about a significant reduction in human workloads, productivity gains through automation may well free up time for workers to explore a healthier work-life balance.

Paul Chan Poh Hoi

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 10, 2015, with the headline 'Robots cannot replace the human touch'. Print Edition | Subscribe