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Robots to the rescue for China?

A few years ago, the Western media was quite puzzled by China building many new towns apparently far from anywhere: now the same media is concerned to learn that China wishes to build some 400 new hospitals!

But let me offer an excuse of a sort - they do not understand China: China, the United States and Europe have almost the same surface area while China has a population of 1.4 billion, Europe 750 million and the US only 320 million.

China must look after its people - in fact all governments must do this, but China is a special case as its rural to urban migration is now in full swing, years after the rural depopulation of Europe and the US - hence the need for the new townships and all their services.

In March 2015, China's National Council unveiled its five-year plan for a national healthcare system that noted, despite a recent rapid growth in such care, it needed more health support of all types. By 2013, it had about 25,000 hospitals with over six million beds and there were over seven million clinic visits, growing by 7 per cent annually. The 2015-2020 plans called for a great increase in provision partly because of the need to service over 200 million elderly people by 2020: they call for a further five million beds.

Consider all the institutions needed in China's new towns - not only is there a need for hospitals and their staff, but schools, stations, airports and suppliers of services like phones, TV, electricity, water and so on. All need educated people to operate correctly, and their education demands time as well as an earlier supply of children with the necessary potential.

A doctor, perhaps the most extreme case, takes 18 years from birth to university entrance, another four or five years before graduation, and one or two more years under an apprenticeship scheme before being allowed to treat patients unsupervised. We have to wait about 25 years before a new child might become a doctor - and during that time span we have to assume the government, regional, and city planners were developing sufficient teaching capacity.


A surgeon using a robot to operate on a patient in Hefei, Anhui province. Increasingly, robots are being used for work demanding fine precision, such as operating inside the human body while being controlled remotely by a surgeon. Local staff are still needed for patient care, but the rare skills of the surgeon can be presented digitally from anywhere, reducing specialist training needs. PHOTO: REUTERS

Is this reasonable - did China's People's Congress 30 years ago declare it was increasing doctor- training capacity in planned phases? I doubt it, as that would be forecasting beyond any imaginable future: not only by the Chinese government that does think long term, but anyone.

Once again winding back the clock, the decreasing price and increasing power of computers opened up the study of "Expert Systems" in the 1970s that blossomed in the 1980s. However, academics soon found that unlike the human brain, the computer "brain" could not make intuitive leaps, and the expert systems had to be confined to quite small domains of knowledge - though their ability to analyse tirelessly and accurately was soon lauded.

Academics also found it took a long time to elicit knowledge from a human expert to code into the computer. Now, with much larger and faster computer systems and different computing modes, they learn faster - for instance, Google Translate having been trained to work with Japanese and English, then Korean and English was found to be able, by itself, to successfully translate between Korean and Japanese.

A Google Research blog concludes that the computers seem to be self-developing linguistic semantics. However, not all of this is magic - there is still much human input needed, but the upshot is that while it may take a long time to train one robot, we can replicate and deploy it rapidly, whereas human education will not be hurried.

China is the largest purchaser globally of industrial robots - think of the assembly lines of cars, phones or footwear. Increasingly, these quite simple machines have been pressed into services demanding fine precision, such as operating inside the human body while being controlled remotely by a surgeon.

Of course, local staff are needed to care for the patient, but the rare skills of the surgeon can be presented digitally from anywhere, reducing overall specialist training needs.

Researchers are also finding that robots can be used in elderly care homes, not only to deliver medication on time to patients, but also to be the equivalent of a pet delivering love to a lonely patient: palliative care is increased without great need to employ more nurses.

Education in remote rural areas is also enhanced with the help of computers - so self-learning can take place without the need for as many teachers working face to face.

Robots therefore have great potential - to reduce the workers' needed to do dirty, dangerous tasks, reduce the staff needed on repetitive, boring assembly and to augment human skills when either strength or delicacy is needed.

Coupled with the computer's ability to analyse vast data quickly, robots can ostensibly make complex decisions, allowing us an easier lifestyle.

Given China's almost unique global situation - a very large and ageing population with a large national sovereign fund - it is possible the government can advance healthcare rapidly and provide a globally useful model for others to follow.

Leading in any sector is costly and time consuming, but I think China has the will to do this in healthcare. We already see in Hainan island large specialised villages with nearby hospitals being built to care for old people who wish to retire away from the winter chills of the north of the country.

But the overarching solution is the deployment of robots across all sectors. At present there is some resistance as staff do not wish to lose their jobs, but the same people will wish later to live a fulfilling life in retirement and will wish the robots work well.

To achieve this future, research and practice need to begin as soon as possible within China's long-term plans.


  • Frank-Jurgen Richter is founder and chairman of Horasis, a global visions community.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 21, 2017, with the headline 'Robots to the rescue for China?'. Print Edition | Subscribe