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Planet of the Robots?

Shahnoor Wahid
25 Sep 2021 00:00:00 | Update: 25 Sep 2021 01:00:23
Planet of the Robots?

Remember the film ‘Planet of the Apes?’ Did the writer of the novel Pierre Boulle sense the end of the human race and the advent of another kind of superior beings before writing the novel?  Was the story a warning only, or was there a hidden message in there?   

The takeover of the world by the apes may sound a little far fetched but what about artificial intelligence – machines – robots? What about ‘Super Computer” as described by author Dan Brown in his novel “Origin” that develops its own intelligence and refuses to take commands from its creator?  Will AI (Artificial Intelligence) finally take over everything and destroy the achievements of humans in the last one thousand years?

Quite a pertinent question, easy to ask, but difficult to answer.

It is said by AI enthusiasts: It doesn’t matter what you do for work now: By 2025, your job -as it exists today - will not be the same. Quite a scary prophecy indeed. It means, within the next few years, at best a decade, we will see many of the present day jobs around the world going to robots. Artificial intelligence will reign in every department and push aside the efforts of humans.    

We can say that the present day automation is the early footsteps of the future robots. Experts say that entire workforces and workplaces will be reconfigured technologically to create new methods of working in commercial offices, in airports, in railways, in factories and in hospitals. Imagine robots performing surgery to remove tumors or a damaged limb. The human error factor will not be there when a micro-surgery will be done by a computer controlled robot.

 Future wars will be fought by robotic soldiers controlled remotely by 4 star generals sitting in air cooled offices.  Robotic airplanes will fly behind enemy lines and drop laser guided bombs. A laser-guided bomb uses semi-active laser guidance to strike a designated target with greater accuracy than an unguided bomb. Enthusiasts believe robots will not only replace us in offices, restaurants and factories, they will take away work from everyone - from musicians to journalists. They will paint better than Van Gogh or Michael Angelo or Matis.

But the optimists in our midst want to console us by saying that as most future jobs will revolve around technology we must develop a kind of deep understanding of this technology - a tech fluency - to survive in the world of clanking and beeping robots all around. They will be strange bedfellows no doubt but we shall have to learn to live with this eventuality. The optimists believe robots will enable businesses to lower their cost of production thus to be more competitive. Though ATM machines helped to reduce clerks in banks, it also helped to open up new branches    where displaced human staff got employment.

It is said that at the moment job loss to automation is a reality we are witnessing all over the world. Many organizations have already gone for automation. Others are actively redesigning jobs around AI and robotics.

Examples from the West show the telecom industry once employed hundreds of humans as switchboard operators to manage mechanical switches. But now, it is managed by only half a dozen people with computarised boards.

But, still the fact remains that the highly developed countries of Europe, the USA, and Japan have replaced thousands of workers with automatic machinery, robots, especially in the automobile, food processing, textile and medicine sectors. There, a computerized welding machine in a car manufacturing factory can do the work of fifty men with remarkable precision.  Robotic hands can assemble fifty car body parts in a day that previously required fifty men.

Automation gets the work done faster than what humans can do, so companies are happy to see their profit graph going upward. In the agriculture sector a single automated machine can harvest crops on a 100 acre land in matters of hours, which previously used to take about 50 laborers to complete in seven days. 

In Bangladesh the debate is on: Will our manufacturing sector go for automation? Will automation replace our huge workforce from the industries and factories, from the farmlands and orchards? What will happen to the hundreds of thousands of workers, especially in a populous country like ours where the rate of unemployment is still high?

Social scientists are watching the trends of automation in Bangladesh and trying to figure out the future scenario in the industrial sector.  

The readymade garment still remains the number one foreign currency earning sector in Bangladesh but it employs hundreds of workers to do simple jobs that are done by machines in the developed countries. With thousands of workers in a factory, majority of them being women, come numerous human and humanitarian factors that need to be attended to by the owners. Delay in payment of salary may lead to agitation and closure of the factory. In consideration of such unavoidable factors, owners are contemplating partial to full automation to lessen the dependence on humans.  They believe automation will ultimately boost the country’s apparel export in near future. But social scientists predict a shrinking of  employment in the readymade garment sector because of the growing use of automation around the globe.

Experts believe the RMG sector will see a remarkable change in the next 5 to 8 years when to stay in the competition, owners will have to go for  new strategies, skill development being one of them. In a paper prepared by Research and Policy Integration for Development (RAPID), it has been shown that while Bangladesh needs some 140 workers to make garments worth US$ 1 million, China and Vietnam need only 48 workers and India and Cambodia 75 workers. The figures here speak loudly in favour of automation with the strong argument that automation will increase RMG export to 40 to 50 billion in future. Eminent economists of the country also believe Bangladesh’s RMG sector will find it difficult to survive in the global competition without going for automation and modernization.

Since the argument in favour of automation is sounding louder and louder, it is likely to happen in the next 8 to 10 years, especially in bigger factories that supply high end products to the big retailers in the USA and EU. These buyers demand superior quality finishing with no blemishes, and only automation can ensure this. 

 There is no denying automation will cut costs, increase production and enhance profit, which is the goal of any entrepreneur, but, at the same time, the fact remains that a large number of workers will lose jobs and ultimately become a social burden. The onus of employment of this workforce will rest on the shoulder of the government. Hence, the relevant ministries will have to do their homework now as to how they would address the issue of unemployed former garment workers. Through arranging skill development training, opportunities can be created for them to find employment at home or abroad in various other trades. While welcoming automation we shall have to think of the future of thousands of  retrenched garment workers as well. 


The writer is Associate Editor at The Business Post