Many organisations in Asia are looking at digital strategies that incorporate automation into their daily operations. And many of their employees already experience some level of automation in their work.

“Countries like China, Korea, Japan and even smaller emerging economies - Thailand and Indonesia - have made significant strides in robotic and industrial automation,” said Harold Soh, assistant professor at the Department of Computer Science at the National University of Singapore.

Technological maturity, current wages and infrastructure, investment costs, existing expertise and expected returns on investment all influence the speed at which automation is implemented.

A recent report from the McKinsey Global Institute, “A Future That Works: Automation, Employment and Productivity”, found that some sectors are more suitable for automation than others. Agriculture and manufacturing were highlighted: China, Korea and Thailand are heavily dependent on these sectors and have an incentive to automate, so are likely to experience a greater impact.

But the reaction to automation has been mixed, with some workers fearful that they might be made redundant by a machine and others optimistic, hoping that automation will free them from mundane tasks and increase their productivity. Soh says it’s important to remember that fears about automation and innovation are nothing new – similar concerns were voiced about the invention of the steam engine.

“As a species, we’ve been automating tasks for a quite a while, but what is potentially new is the type of tasks that can be successfully automated. Almost any routine activity is amenable to automation, including tasks in “high-skilled” jobs that require significant education and training,” said Soh.

Start-up enterprises have produced automated systems that can appeal parking tickets, evaluate loan applications, and diagnose lung cancer - so it’s little wonder people are worried about the prospect of losing their jobs.

In Asia, fears of job loss are greatest in Hong Kong (20 per cent of those surveyed) and Singapore (19 per cent), according to a study by recruitment firm Randstad of workers’ views on automation. Malaysian employees, on the other hand, had a more relaxed view, with only 13 per cent having fears about automation and job security.

Both Hong Kong and Singapore are small, technologically-advanced countries where automation can be adopted and rolled-out at a comparatively rapid pace.

“The pace at which automation is implemented can cause dramatic shifts in the labour market. In other words, it is not necessarily the change that is worrying but the speed at which this change can occur,” said Soh.

More than six in 10 employees in the Randstad survey said they would be happy to retrain in a new role provided their salaries remained the same or higher than before.

“Displaced workers who are not able to re-educate or re-tool themselves quickly enough may be unemployed for indeterminate periods of time,” said Soh.

Adding to the fear factor is a lack of understanding about the precise nature of automation, what can and cannot be automated and to what extent, said Soh.

For those who are concerned about the rise of the robot, it is worth bearing in mind that artificial intelligence (AI) is a long way off being able to replicate all the capabilities of a human. What we have now is artificial “narrow” intelligence, which is good at repetitive tasks in largely constrained settings. Jobs that mostly consist of such routine activities are the most likely to be automated, but it is estimated they account for just five per cent of all employment.

“The large majority of jobs have some aspect that can be automated, so, we can expect automation to change the nature of our work, but not replace us completely in the foreseeable future,” said Soh.

What’s more, while increased productivity may decrease the available number of jobs, AI and automation may create new jobs that do not even exist yet, he added.

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