Shape-shifting robots which sweep and vacuum hawker centres on their own would help to bring one of Singapore's most treasured everyday institutions within the ambit of the Smart Nation project. The sight of cleaners at these eating places offers a very Old Economy view of Singapore. This is an economy based reflexively on the use of manual labour, of uneven productivity, in what itself is a tight labour force. The New Economy allocates resources more efficiently and removes some of the drudgery of repetitive labour from human hands through the innovative use of technology. That initiative must lie at the heart of moving Singapore up the ranks of smart nations.
Certainly, a pertinent question is what will happen to cleaning aunties and uncles should the robots, which are being developed, arrive. The rise of nations, including Singapore, up the rungs of the technological ladder cannot leave unwanted humans behind. The industrial revolution under way is unlike the initial one, which flourished on the plentiful availability and hence dispensability of human labour. The moral times have changed.
Here, the good news is that the move into technology will help free up workers in the sector for higher-skilled jobs. Manpower cannot be increased indefinitely to meet the continuing rise in demand for cleaning and waste management services. Instead, it is technological innovation which is necessary to make the supply-demand relationship a sustainable one. The Singapore University of Technology and Design and the National Robotics Programme, the motive force behind the initiative, should be complimented on their effort to bring the future closer.
That said, it is to be hoped that the arrival of robots will not make cleaning uncles and aunties redundant in massive numbers. If that were to occur, the social infrastructure must be prepared to step in and make their lives easier.