Among the measures announced in the Budget to transform Singapore's industrial landscape is the provision of more than $400 million to support firms in scaling up automation projects. Also, more than $450 million will be set aside to assist in the development and adoption of robots. These initiatives are among a slew of measures to prepare companies, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), for a future marked by shorter business cycles that are caused in part by global economic volatility. While SMEs might be craving more help to cope with more immediate economic pains, which have been addressed separately, there is no denying a watchful eye must be kept on longer-term afflictions too.
Naturally, there is concern about jobs that will be shed when machines are equipped to take on more tasks. Reallocating labour via skills upgrading can offer a solution but the scale of potential technological unemployment should not be underestimated. In Australia, for example, a government briefing paper puts half of all jobs in New South Wales (its largest state economy) at risk in the next 10 to 15 years.
The rise of technology is unstoppable - clever software, versatile computer-controlled robots, artificial intelligence (AI), wider uses of big data, cloud computing and the Internet of Things. In the face of such trends, tapping such technology ought to be an instinctive business response to competition from all quarters. AI, for example, is changing business and industries, with global Internet giants, including Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook and Baidu, betting on it. It cannot be long before SMEs find themselves having to tap AI, especially once it is delivered affordably on ubiquitous platforms.
In the same way, robots might soon also be within the reach of more SMEs, especially if these are produced locally and leased to smaller players in manufacturing, food and beverage, and other sectors. Singapore's tripartite framework must remain robust enough to ensure industrial peace as companies scale up and adopt greater automation. Workers will have to be persuaded that the best way to protect their interests is for them to stay abreast of technological change, instead of resisting it and merely delaying the inevitable.
Many companies might have no option but to move up the technological ladder. But others will find rich pickings in traditional industries by adopting new production methods, harnessing the creativity of workers and seeking new markets. The mastery of diverse skills offered by existing workers twinned with the derring-do of a new breed of entrepreneurs can represent a winning combination. In short, not everyone needs to convert himself into a techie in the workplace of tomorrow. But everyone ought to be comfortable working alongside smart machines.