China has thrown down the robotics gauntlet for the next three years. According to its 13th Five-Year Plan, which spans 2016 to 2020, China aims to manufacture 100,000 industrial robots a year in 2020, which would be more than three times larger than the figure of 33,000 in 2015, according to Shanghai Daily.
To help accomplish this, SIASUN Robot and Automation Co. Ltd., China’s largest maker of industrial robots, is opening a new intelligent production site in the Lingang area of Shanghai in June of this year. The firm hopes that the site, when fully operational, will generate annual sales of ¥1 billion.
In recent years we have been seeing more and more companies install robots in their production facilities, with the obvious goals of boosting efficiency and reducing repetitive manual operations, not to mention the eventual labor cost savings after the capital expenditures are paid for. The production lines at SIASUN are intended to produce robots for industrial, service, and military uses.
This has several important implications. Firstly, the deep and complex moral question of the possible displacement of workers after their jobs are performed by robots will have to be discussed at some point. Additionally, does this mean we will be seeing a new arms race among the advanced countries in the world, this one focusing on robotics? Finally, is this just a clever way of boosting a nation’s economy even though some workers will clearly lose their jobs as a result of automation?
One thing is for sure: China does not approach ambitious, expensive, and resource-intensive ventures flippantly, especially if these ventures contain potentially unpredictable consequences, and so it is very likely that much thought has been put into these plans. I am of the personal opinion that we should not hold back significant progress just because we may have some unintended consequences such as job losses. Rather, we should explore and discuss the consequences of such endeavors, illuminating both the positives and negatives, and come to a conclusion through consensus, while at the same time providing for workers who may be displaced as a result of these new technologies.