WhyItMatters

I Robot, you boss

Emma, Pepper, Lucy, Mary and Techi may sound like new friends or pets, but they are actually robots making a name for themselves as they take on jobs in workplaces here.

Emma, for example, was unveiled on Monday as a massage therapist assisting Chinese physicians and physiotherapists.

Pepper can take orders as a waiter and recommend food items, Lucy and Mary deliver food from the restaurant kitchen to the tables, while two Techis work as hotel housekeeping aides and can deliver bottled water, linen and toiletries to rooms.

Such robots are a boon to the labour-short service sector, where they can handle manual jobs hard to fill with local workers.

Emma, a robotic traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) massage therapist, demonstrating a massage at Kin Teck Tong's Sports Science and Chinese Medicine Clinic at the Kallang Wave Mall on July 18.
Emma, a robotic traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) massage therapist, demonstrating a massage at Kin Teck Tong's Sports Science and Chinese Medicine Clinic at the Kallang Wave Mall on July 18. ST PHOTO

This will be even more important in the years to come as Singapore's population is ageing and the growth of the workforce is slowing - from 4 per cent per year to 1 per cent per year by 2020.

In addition to their ability to work without tiring, robots can be programmed to complete each task with precision, so that a consistent outcome is achieved time and time again. This is valuable in industries such as food preparation, cleaning and precision engineering.

The Government clearly supports this trend.

It announced a major $450 million National Robotics Programme during the Budget debate this year.

Small and medium-sized enterprises, some of which find high-tech robots too expensive for now, will also be able to tap additional funding to work on automation projects.

Some people have expressed worry that workers will be displaced by robots such as driverless cars or supercomputers.

For now at least, the human touch is still preferred at many service points, and robots can complement - not replace - humans, as in the case of Emma the massage robot, which does the physical work while physicians still attend to patients and come up with the treatment plan.

As long as this balance is maintained, it should not be too difficult to coexist.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 20, 2016, with the headline 'I Robot, you boss'. Print Edition | Subscribe