Fast Forward: Disruption and the Singapore Economy

Living with robots

Soon they will be in restaurants, hospitals and even hotels, giving a lift to productivity

Standing at just 1.4m, Hospi, Changi General Hospital's (CGH) newest porter, still gets the occasional stare as it moves along the building's corridors.

That is because it is not human. It has a computer screen for a face, and a cold, hard, white body to match.

But it can move almost as well as a person, with the ability to avoid obstacles, take the lift and move from room to room to deliver items without supervision, and has, since last year, taken on some of the work of porters at the hospital.

CGH is not alone in turning to intelligent mechanical helpers. Over at the National University Hospital, a robotic system automatically picks up and packs medicine at its pharmacy, even keeping track of expiry dates.

Healthcare is a notoriously labour-intensive affair, where ferrying a single bed-bound patient to get an X-ray requires the combined effort of two hospital staff. Each day hundreds of trips are also taken on foot to deliver medicine, medical samples and reports across hospital floors.

It is against this backdrop that doctors and scientists alike started dreaming up ideas of robotic employees some 10 years ago - visions that are starting to take shape today.

These intelligent machines are only going to get closer to patients, eventually even helping to lift them off their beds, says Nanyang Technological University (NTU) don Ang Wei Tech.


Above: Microbiological testing laboratory Ugene Laboratory Services invested in a $1.5 million robot to do routine tasks like weighing samples and to conduct simple tests for bacteria like E. coli. PHOTOS: LIM SIN THAI, MARCUS TAN, AZIZ HUSSIN FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Associate Professor Ang, who is associate chair of research at the School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, said such a robot is still a few years away, but he has his sights set on creating one that can move three patients on their hospital beds at once, with just one person to supervise it.

The university is one of many academic institutions, companies and start-ups worldwide that are trying to gain a foothold in the multibillion-dollar robotics industry. And healthcare is just one sector that robotics has infiltrated.

The industry is exploding and disrupting life as we know it.

CHEAPER AND SMARTER
Robots first made their mark in the manufacturing industry in the 1970s, taking on mundane and repetitive tasks such as assembling different machine parts - all done in the confines of cages built specially for them in factories.


Above: A robotic arm in NUH automatically picking up and packing medicine at the pharmacy. The machine is part of the Outpatient Pharmacy Automation System that went live in November 2014. . PHOTOS: LIM SIN THAI, MARCUS TAN, AZIZ HUSSIN FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

But in recent years they have morphed into the collaborative robots or "co-bots" that work alongside humans, equipped with better sensing capabilities for safety and higher levels of artificial intelligence, and now have ventured out of their cages and factories.

Experts attribute this to advancements in mobile computing technology that have driven down the cost of micro-controllers - essentially computers on a chip that give robots their artificial intelligence - from $10,000 a decade ago to about $200 today.

The cost of force control sensors that tell the robot to stop when it makes contact with an obstacle - for example, a human arm - has also fallen from over $10,000 to around $1,000 over the same period, said Prof Ang.


Above: A CGH nurse collecting documents delivered by Hospi, which takes on the work of porters. .PHOTOS: LIM SIN THAI, MARCUS TAN, AZIZ HUSSIN FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Hence it is now possible for a typical robot with six axes - meaning it can move six different ways - to have a micro-controller and a force sensor at each joint. This makes it far more sensitive to human touch and, hence, safer.

These days robots cut across various sectors, including healthcare, transport, security, logistics and manufacturing - creating an industry that is taking shape as the centrepiece of the next industrial revolution.

JUST ANOTHER TOOL

Over time, we have to understand that we should adopt and embrace robots and to use them as naturally as we use Facebook or e-mail.

PROFESSOR TAN SZE WEE, executive director of A*Star's Science and Engineering Research Council.

The global robotics industry is expected to grow from US$20 billion (S$27 billion) to US$80 billion by 2025, according to the International Federation Report on Robotics Statistical Analysis and EU Roadmap 2013.

Last year, over 240,000 industrial robots were sold - a 12 per cent increase from the year before, with China leading the pack with 68,000 units sold in the country. The International Federation of Robotics has predicted that some 2.3 million units will be deployed on factory floors by 2018 - more than twice as many as in 2009.

But some human workers have paid a high price for the growth of robots. For example, Chinese company Foxconn Technology Group, which supplies electronics to Apple and Samsung, replaced 60,000 employees in its factories with robots.

Research agency Gartner predicts that by 2018 more than three million workers globally will be supervised by "robobosses" with the ability to evaluate an employee's performance solely on quantifiable data, such as the angle at which a waiter presents a plate or how quickly he smiles, and without bias. It adds that half of the fastest-growing firms will have fewer employees than smart machines.

However, job losses are much less of a problem for a country like Singapore, where manpower is in short supply, experts said. Dr Satish Lele, senior vice-president of automation and electronics at research agency Frost and Sullivan, Asia-Pacific, said questions about jobs being replaced are usually asked in developing countries that have an abundance of labour, but "here, robots could be integral in creating the right balance between Singaporeans and foreign labour".

The Economic Development Board (EDB) said robotics technology could be a way for the city-state - faced with an ageing population, slow population growth and political pressure to limit the inflow of foreign workers - to "boost productivity amid a tight labour market".

Besides enabling the continued employment of an ageing workforce through automation of production tasks, robotics allows manufacturing to be done at higher precision, quality, speed and consistency. It also enables tasks to be carried out in areas that are inaccessible to human workers, such as high-temperature and high-pressure environments, said the Ministry of Trade and Industry.

While industrial robots still make up the bulk of all robots deployed worldwide, experts said service robots are likely to be a greater force here. They expect to see many more service robots in the next five years, especially in the healthcare, food and beverage, and hospitality sectors, where labour is hardest to come by.

More robots will take on logistics tasks at hospitals, like the ones at CGH. Others will become waiters, like the robots Lucy and Mary at Rong Heng Seafood restaurant at the East Coast Seafood Centre. They can deliver food to any of the 29 tables on the ground floor of the restaurant in two minutes.

Four-year-old robotics start-up Techmetics has also invented a robot named Techi that can do the job of three hotel staff.

Two have been deployed at Park Avenue Rochester Hotel in Buona Vista, and have taken on the role of housekeeping aides, delivering bottled water, linen and toiletries to hotel rooms. They will be used later to deliver food, luggage and mail to guests' rooms.

Techmetics chief executive Mathan Muthupillai said four more such robots will make their debut at Singapore restaurants, including IndoChine and Kinsa Sushi, in two months, helping to serve food to patrons and clear their dishes.

Without the need for lunch, tea or dinner breaks, and with no ability to fall sick or become tired, robots can be at any employer's beck and call 24/7, said Mr Mathan.

PLAYING CATCH-UP
Right now, Singapore has some catching up to do with other countries because it started to adopt robots rather "late in the game", said Professor Tan Sze Wee, who is the executive director of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research's Science and Engineering Research Council.

  • Fast Forward series

  • With Singapore firmly focused on the Future Economy, The Straits Times' series, Fast Forward: Disruption and the Singapore Economy, helps you make sense of the big shifts that will shake up entire sectors, reshape jobs and change lives. Every Saturday for 12 weeks, the paper's journalists will examine a disruptive force, its likely impact on the economy and how soon that will be felt: from robotics, 3D printing and smart buildings to dire demographic trends, the global skills revolution and the Asean growth story.

    Next week, find out more about Asean, the growth engine that's still firing.

One reason for this, he said, was that "until recently, manufacturing has largely been driven by labour growth rather than productivity growth, due to having a much younger workforce".

Today, the opposite is true.

Prof Ang, agreeing with Prof Tan, said Singapore was too cautious when robotics started to take off back in 2011, when the components needed to build them became cheaper. He and his colleagues approached the Government with proposals for robotics research and funds needed for it, but were turned down.

But in 2014, the Government turned to the NTU team instead for input on a national robotics programme. The same year, Google acquired eight robotics companies.

Still, Prof Ang said he believes that while Singapore lagged behind in adopting robot technology, the Republic is, in fact, on a par with other countries when it comes to robotics innovation.

"The lack of funding over the last five years made it difficult for robotics technologies developed here to leave the laboratory and move into the market," he said. But he added that the tide can turn with the generous funding that the Government is now promising.

To catch up and even jump ahead, the Government announced a $450 million National Robotics Programme during the Budget debate in April this year, to drive the development, test-bedding and deployment of robotics technology in both public and private sectors.

An additional $400 million will also be made available to local small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that are keen to automate.

The EDB now sees huge potential in this field. "Given the global growth potential of new-generation collaborative and service robots, with the right strategy, we see opportunities to nurture robotics into potentially a billion-dollar industry in the next five to 10 years," an EDB spokesman said.

That could in turn provide between 2,000 and 3,000 good job opportunities for engineers here, she added.

The Government has set its sights on these sectors: healthcare, transport, security, environment, logistics and manufacturing.

The strategy is to spur innovation in the public and private sectors while concurrently encouraging and supporting the adoption of market- ready robotics technology across manufacturing and services sectors among large, medium-sized and small businesses alike, the EDB said.

Singapore is not without success stories. Semiconductor maker Globalfoundries Singapore, for example, introduced intelligent systems to its factories in 2010 and now has 42 autonomous mobile robots to move materials in its manufacturing line. That has improved labour productivity by 25 per cent.

Researchers at NTU last year unveiled Nadine, a humanoid robot that can answer questions posed to it, remember past conversations and even gauge how a person is feeling by reading facial gestures.

Mr Charlie Ill, investment director at venture capital firm Red Dot Ventures, said the number of robotics start-ups that have come knocking on his door has gone up from just one last year to seven so far this year. The challenge for these start-ups, said Mr Ill, would be to differentiate themselves from the competition, in terms of cost and by providing a suite of software solutions that allows the robot to work independently with minimal human interaction.

ROBOTICS SAVVY
In the future, robots will greet customers at retail stores and give suggestions based on past purchases. They will front restaurants, take orders as patrons queue and help cut waiting times.

In healthcare, they will improve treatment precision in surgery, for example. At home, they will help caregivers and support independent living with assistive technology, said CGH chief executive Lee Chien Earn.

They will also help reshape experiences and business processes. They will create jobs that never existed, and change the concept of what types of jobs are suitable for humans.

"Through strategic deployment", the EDB said, "advanced robotics can potentially help free up resources, enabling our workforce to take on higher-value, more productive jobs".

Robotics manpower talent will be required at all levels, it added, from operators who can program and work comfortably with robots to engineers and scientists who can design and build the next generation of robots, as well as those who can contribute to research and development.

Also needed are cyber-security teams that can prevent robots from getting hacked, said market analyst Bob Gill from ARC Advisory Group.

To ensure robotics really takes flight here, more thought has to be put into how to retrain workers for new jobs, and to create a new generation of workers who are not just tech-savvy but "robotics-savvy", said Prof Tan. "We need to think about how we train them at schools, at universities, and to get kids interested in robots," he added.

As a start, IDA has launched the Robotics and Maker Academy to teach primary and secondary school students to code and program robots. Since 2014, more than 10,000 students have gone through the programme.

The agency also launched the Code@SG movement in 2014, which includes the National Infocomm Competition that allows students to pit their skills in areas like robotics, security, data analytics and coding.

An Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore spokesman said the aim is for young Singaporeans to become confident with coding and robotics technology to help prepare them for a Smart Nation future.

At the end of the day, acceptance is key, said Prof Tan. "Over time, we have to understand that we should adopt and embrace robots, and to use them as naturally as we use Facebook or e-mail."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 09, 2016, with the headline 'Living with robots'. Print Edition | Subscribe