Global powers vying for leadership in robotics, driverless cars, Iot and AI

If you go to Park Avenue Rochester Hotel in Singapore, you may come across two unusual employees named “Techi.”

They have no eyes, no legs and no arms. They are first robot housekeepers deployed at a Singaporean hotel for back-of-the-house functions such as transporting linen, refuse and bulky items.

From next year, the 1.38m-tall robot, using driverless technology, is expected to perform other tasks, such as helping guests, delivering luggage or doing night patrols. The robot project was funded by the Singaporean government.

Ong Hwee Teng, assistant marketing manager of the hotel, said that the robots have brought a couple of benefits, including “reducing bottlenecks in linen management, manpower savings and increased productivity.”

“The robots are functioning well. With the significant physical strain taken out of room attendants jobs, not only have job injuries been reduced, room attendants now have more time to focus on quality control and interaction with guests,” she said.

“The successful deployment of the robots also meant that the room attendants acquired new skills to operate the robot from a tablet,” she added. “By adapting to a new technology in their daily routine, this has set a foundation for subsequent productivity improvements. The hotel has planned to implement the system to front-of-house functions for room service.”

The Singaporean government has decided to spend $450 million over the next three years to support the development of robotics, one of the game-changing technologies that will reshape the way we live in the coming decades.

Also, you can experience Auto Riders, autonomous vehicles at the Gardens by the Bay in Singapore as they have recently embarked on a trial of driverless shuttles. The city-state plans to start testing self-driving buses in a small part of the city from 2018.

These are part of Singapore’s Smart Nation initiative to ensure sustainable growth in the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution triggered by a fusion of technologies, a concept first introduced at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland.

Quiet revolution underway

Singapore’s examples show that the Fourth Industrial Revolution, also known as digital revolution, is actually in the making in everyday lives.

Singapore is not the only country seeking to become a frontrunner in the fourth wave of “quiet revolution.”

Global powers, such as the U.S., Japan and Germany, are busy developing and standardizing new technologies in fields such as robotics, the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI) and autonomous vehicles.

The U.S. founded the Industrial Internet Consortium in 2014 to bring together the organizations and technologies necessary to accelerate the growth of the Industrial Internet by identifying, assembling and promoting best practices.

The U.S. government is concentrating on strengthening collaboration with industries to spur the development of the IoT, the crux of future manufacturing, cyber physics systems (CPS) and AI.

Germany, one of the manufacturing powerhouses and a leader in smart production, introduced the Industry 4.0 Project in 2011, in a bid to solidify its leadership in the future manufacturing industry.

With the strategic initiative, the country has the ambition to establish Germany as a provider of advanced manufacturing systems. It is seeking cooperation with the EU to expand its initiative.

Japan launched the Robot Revolution Initiative Council in 2015 to help its corporate sector to “spread the use of robotics from large-scale factories to every corner of its economy and society.”

With the goal of boosting sales from 600 billion yen ($4.9 billion) a year to 2.4 trillion yen by 2020, the council aims to expand robotics throughout Japanese industry. Japan is now ahead of the U.S. and Germany in robot technology.

Some emerging economies, such as China and India, are also joining the new industrial wave. The Chinese government unveiled the Made in China 2025 initiative to comprehensively upgrade its manufacturing industry. It is China’s version of Germany’s Industry 4.0 plan.

India has also introduced the Digital India campaign to ensure sustainable growth by improving online infrastructure and by increasing internet connectivity and making the country digitally empowered in the field of technology.

Strenuous efforts by these countries are indicating that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is already becoming a reality.

“We stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another,” said Schwab in the contribution to Foreign Affairs.

“In its scale, scope, and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before,” he added.

He pointed out that the possibilities of billions of people connected by mobile devices, with unprecedented processing power, storage capacity, and access to knowledge, are unlimited.

“These possibilities will be multiplied by emerging technology breakthroughs in fields such as AI, robotics, the IoT, autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage and quantum computing,” he said.

Korea lagging behind

Korea has been one of the most successful countries over the past decades in the era of the Third Industrial Revolution powered by electronics and information technology.

The country has enjoyed the fastest growth for the shortest period of time on the back of strong exports of world-class manufacturers such as Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Motor.

However, Asia’s fourth-largest economy is now struggling as it is still fixating on hardware breakthroughs and has failed to catch up with global movements toward the Fourth Industrial Revolution spearheaded by software and creativity.

Richard Dobbs, a senior partner at McKinsey & Company, said that Korean firms are seemingly falling behind in innovation drive, noting that no Korean player, for example, can be seen in the global wave toward a “driverless car.”

“Why is Korea not doing a really big play on driverless cars? Think about players in that market. You have Apple, Google, Ford, Tesla…,” he said.

“This is a big disruption. Why aren’t Korean firms going after big disruptions the same way they did in TVs and smartphones. Now is the time to change the mindset,” he added.

The Korean government doesn’t seem to have a sense of urgency about the threats posed by the ongoing revolution. There has been talk, but no tangible actions have been put in place.

It is important for the government to tackle pending issues, such as sluggish exports, soaring household debt, the high youth jobless rate and aging population.

However, Korean policymakers should aware that there will be no future if they fail to make the country ready for this revolutionary change.

“We are standing at a place where opportunities and threats created by the Fourth Industrial Revolution meet,” said Ha Won-kyu, a researcher at the Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute at a recent conference.

“After two to three years, we won’t be even able to jump on the new wave even if we want to,” he added. “The government should come up with swift measures to stay competitive in the transformation.”

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