With the recent prevalence of technology, our way of life are vastly improving. Advancements with technologies has helped humans to deal with mundane tasks, and enables us to work effectively and allows room to create more high value-added jobs.
- Why is Singapore Going Robotics?
- How is Singapore Supporting Robotics?
- How is Robotics Changing Lives in Singapore?
- The Future of Singapore with Robotics
- Robotics Education in Singapore
- Why Singapore is Uniquely Placed to Pursue Robotics?
Why is Singapore Going Robotics?
(Image Source: NTU website)
(Image Source: NTU website)
Robotics as part of Singapore’s Smart Nation initiative
The nation’s interest in robotics is part of its effort to become a knowledge-based, innovative, smart nation. An early adopter of Artificial Intelligence (AI), the Republic has established itself as an AI hub. Today, it is the second most automated country in the world, behind South Korea. According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), Singapore has 488 robot workers per 10,000 human employees, far ahead of the global average of 74. Singapore’s robot labour force is expected to double by 2021.
Robotics as a solution to population and labour woes
Leading the charge in robotics is a strategic move on the part of the country to solve looming problems.
Like many industrialised nations, Singapore is ageing. Residents 65 and above account for 13.7% of the population in 2018, up from 13% the previous year. This has placed the island-state as the second-fastest ageing population in the world after South Korea based on United Nation figures.
Declining Birth Rates
Compounding the issue is the country’s persistently low birth rates. It takes 2.1 babies per woman to renew a population. Singapore recorded only 1.16 births per woman in 2017, a further dip compared to 2016’s 1.2. The country is now one of the least fertile countries in the world, ranking 197th out of 200 in fertility.
Meanwhile, the population is living longer. Life expectancy has been on the rise. Singaporeans can now expect to live to 83.1 years, up from 83 in 2016. Nearly two decades before in 2000, it was 80. A generation ago in 1980, it was barely 75.
The population trend means that Singapore is rapidly becoming a nation that cannot renew its labour force. As workers age out of the market and retire, the country will not have enough younger people entering the workforce to replace them. It faces a real danger of labour shortage.
With the seniors living longer and a decreasing pool of working adults, those capable of providing economic support to the elderly will shrink accordingly as well. Nearly 30 years ago in 1990, there were 10.5 workers supporting one elderly. By 2018, the number had shrunken to just 4.8 workers. The strain on the Singapore worker will only increase.
Singaporeans are among the most educated and skilled workers in the world. In 2018, it was named the best country for developing human capital by the World Bank, topping 157 global economies.
Accordingly, its people are also fussy about what they want to work in. Manual, menial labour is shunned; PMET (Professionals, Managers, Executives and Technicians) jobs are preferred. The service industry, in particular, is feeling the squeeze with positions no local wants to take up.
Foreign Labour Challenges
Opening doors to foreign manpower to fill the labour gap created new problems for the government. Locals, unhappy with the increased competition from foreigners for jobs, housing and transport, made their discontent clear. In the 2011 General Election, the ruling political party, the People’s Action Party (PAP), saw its lowest win – 60.14% – since Singapore became independent. The result forced the government to rethink its foreign labour policy.
Non-human workers present Singapore a way to overcome these population and labour woes, doing work the country no longer has workers to do or which its workers refuse to do.
Robotics as a response to changing landscape
Singapore is a forward-thinking nation. It is always keen to stay in step with advances and strengthen its global position. There is no denying or escaping smart automation and Singapore intends to harness it to sharpen its competitive edge.
Improve Productivity And Efficiency
Singapore may not have much but it excels in optimising what it has. It may not have many workers but it can make its workers more productive and the work more efficient. It may not have many workers but it can ensure its processes are flawless. Robotics offers an excellent way to achieve all this.
Industrial robots can work tirelessly with precision and consistency, delivering quality every time. Their efficiency also means reduced material wastage while improving productivity and safety.
In addition, they relieve workers of strenuous, repetitive tasks, freeing them to perform higher-value functions. Many hospitals in the country use cobots or collaborative robots that work alongside human workers to pick, pack and deliver medicine so their human colleagues can concentrate on the patients.
Draw Economic Benefits
Contrary to common belief, the rise of robotics has not led to a loss of jobs but to the creation of new ones. Worldwide, robotics is expected to create up to two million jobs from 2017 to 2020. New jobs sustain economic growth. Singapore understands this well and robotics is one of the ways it is driving development.
Manage A Changing Workforce
Millennials – those born between 1980 and 2000 – make up one in five of Singapore’s workers. Often called the strawberry generation – easily bruised like the fruit, unable to manage pressure or commit to hard work – their expectations of work are vastly different from those of their parents’. They want flexibility and eschew routine. Using robots to do the more mundane jobs allows employers to meet the expectations of the Millennial worker.
Meet Expectations Of Customers
Consumers are getting more sophisticated and the Singapore consumer is no exception. A 2017 Accenture survey showed that Singaporeans welcome AI, with 35% ready for hyper-personalised services. To be a thriving business hub, Singapore needs to transform customer experience.
Local bank, DBS, is among the first to do this. It has ventured into conversational AI with the creation of a chatbot that interacts with customers on mobile, web and Facebook Messenger. The chatbot provides information on products and services and doling out advice on spending in very much the same way people use social media.
Man has long envisioned a world where humans leverage robots to enhance and optimise their lives. We have crossed the threshold of this dream and Singapore has every intention of being in the forefront of man-machine interaction.
How is Singapore supporting Robotics?
Whatever places Singapore in the forefront on the world stage, this island-nation is interested to invest in. That is why it is deeply committed to building a reputation as an innovator in robotics and intelligent machines.
Here is a look at what Singapore is doing to support the advancement of robotics in this next phase of the digital revolution.
In order for robotics to thrive, it requires an entire ecosystem of support that includes Artificial Intelligence (AI), digital innovation and smart technology. Singapore is already establishing itself as a centre for AI experimentation and innovation. It has invested heavily in digital infrastructure. In addition, it is a highly connected nation. 97% of its population has access to fast and reliable internet connectivity.
This drive towards technology has drawn industry leaders in this area to its shores, helping to enrich the locals’ understanding and appreciation of robotics. In 2015, Singapore held the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems. Self-driving golf carts that could carry passengers while navigating winding paths with pedestrian and cyclists were showcased at the event.
In November 2016, the city hosted the first Singapore International Robo Expo (SIRE). 2,000 people from 26 nations participated. Other global gatherings have since followed – Inside 3D Printing Singapore and Manufacturing Technology Asia (MTA).
Research into future technology is big on the island-state’s agenda. In 2006, Singapore set up the National Research Foundation under the Prime Minister’s Office. Apart from developing policies and strategies for research, innovation and enterprise and providing funding, NRF also coordinates research throughout the government and across various industries.
NRF builds connections with robotics researchers around the world, too. One of its key initiatives is the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), a partnership between NRF and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The programme offers four-year graduate fellowships which cover tuition for students at the affiliated schools as well as undergraduate and postdoctoral research fellowships.
Singapore is also home to Asia’s first centre for testing and developing new manufacturing technologies. The Advanced Remanufacturing and Technology Centre (ARTC) is led by the country’s main R&D body, the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) in partnership with Nanyang Technological University (NTU). The collaboration aims to increase the adoption of advanced processes and robotics.
There are other robotics research facilities as well including research universities like NTU, the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Singapore Polytechnic (SP). These have seen several breakthroughs.
NTU’s Robotics Research Centre developed a revolutionary bio-inspired robotic sock. The wearable tech has soft actuators that mimic the tentacle movements of corals that promote blood circulation by helping lower leg muscles to contract, preventing bedridden people from developing deep vein thrombosis.
NTU also partnered Singapore-based engineering firm, Singapore Technologies Engineering Ltd, to form an advanced robotics and autonomous systems laboratory. The collaboration is aimed at developing the next generation of robots through new technologies, generating new products and services, and increasing employment opportunities for researchers and scientists while providing exposure to students in industrial R&D.
At NUS, the Advanced Robotics Centre introduced a swan-like GPS-guided robot that can take water measurements and transmit the results wirelessly while being entirely unobtrusive.
At the Singapore Institute for Neurotechnology, a research facility at NUS, surgical robots and robotic devices that help people cope with injuries and disabilities have been developed. One such device is a portable knee-ankle-foot robot designed for gait rehabilitation.
Singapore has actively courted foreign talents to share their knowledge and expertise in robotics. As a result, German multinational software corporation, SAP, opened an innovation centre in Singapore in 2016. The centre is part of SAP’s global network that works with students to promote science and technology for solutions for cancer patients.
Chinese e-commerce giant, Alibaba, opened a research facility at NTU to look into how AI can help improve healthcare and city planning in Singapore. The Alibaba-NTU Singapore Joint Research Institute is part of a five-year partnership.
Networking & Partnerships
Understanding the importance of networking and partnership to foster exchange of ideas and provide support, Singapore has created several platforms for such purposes. Launchpad Robotics Centre was established in 2018 to let start-ups in the robotics and automation sector have greater access to support, innovative technologies and communication networks. The 1,600-square-foot centre has a marker space with a range of equipment, co-working spaces and even a display area.
There are private platforms as well. The Singapore Industrial Automation Association (SIAA) is one such organisation propelling the country’s robotics endeavours. Its 500 active members companies and professional include most of the Republic’s major automation and electronics businesses and Singapore-based units of several international manufacturers. SIAA brings these players in automation, IoT and robotics in the business community together through events such as sharing sessions, study trips and collaborations.
The Robotics Automation Centre of Excellence (RACE) is a not-for-profit training academy set up by Singapore-based PBA (Precision Bearings and Automation) Group. RACE helps smaller business and factory owners understand more about the various robotics solutions available through training, mentorship and partnerships. Companies can also try out robots before committing to purchases.
Funding & Financial Support
Singapore has been more than generous with funding. In 2016, it pledged over S$450 million across three years to support the National Robotics Programme (NRP). NRP promotes the adoption and development of robotics solutions in healthcare, construction, manufacturing and logistics.
The sum is part of an even larger initiative - Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2020 (RIE 2020) where S$19 billion has been set aside over five years to support and realise research in science and technology that will benefit the nation. In 2019, an extra S$540 million was allotted to RIE 2020. The top-up is for the creation of AI systems to identify patients predisposed to chronic diseases and to the building of robots to perform menial tasks as well as the development of wearable sensors that can help in the early intervention of heart failure. This brings the fund for research and development in AI, robotics and supercomputers to S$900 million.
Also introduced in 2016 alongside funds made available to the NRP is the Automation Support Package (ASP). ASP supports projects that involve large-scale deployment of automation solutions that improve productivity and manpower efficiency. It includes grant support for up to 50% of project costs, capped at S$1 million as well as 100% investment allowance and up to S$15 million in loans for automation equipment.
There are funds that, while not directly meant for robotics, can still be tapped on by companies looking to automate. The Enterprise Development Grant (EDG) supports companies in their efforts to upgrade, innovate or internationalise. It funds up to 70% of qualifying project costs such as third-party consultancy fees, software, equipment and internal manpower.
Another such fund is the Productivity Solutions Grant (PSG) reserved for projects that promote productivity by adopting technology. Companies can expect up to 70% funding support.
In addition, NRF offers funding for strategic initiatives that go towards transforming Singapore into a vibrant R&D hub.
In schools, robotics has moved beyond co-curricular activities and is now offered as part of core curriculum. In 2014, primary and secondary schools received S$2.8 million from the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) and SP to support robotics and computer coding education as part of the Robotics and Maker Academy. The programme, which lasted till 2017, gave 10,000 students from 30 schools the opportunity to understand technology through hands-on exercises and exposed them to computation thinking.
Postgraduate students can also look to training at a centre set up by US software firm, Salesforce, in various fields in AI such as natural language processing and deep learning where computers are taught to learn by example. The centre is the company’s first AI research centre out of its R&D hub in California.
Meanwhile, workers are being trained to embrace robots in their workplace and acquire skills so they can adapt to new technology. There are several courses on robotics available at institutes of higher learning and through the national SkillsFuture programme.
For an ageing society with intentions to improve productivity to create a sustainable and viable economy, and a secure and convenient urban environment robotics is an obvious solution. This is something Singapore is holding to with laser-sharp focus.
How is Robotics Changing Life in Singapore?
The smart tray return robots may be the most visible robots in the country but they are by no means the only ones. Robots are steadily becoming part of Singapore society and economy.
Here are some ways they are changing the way we live, work and play.
One of the key pillars driving Singapore’s economic growth, manufacturing is where robotics has taken firm root. Singapore has the second most automated workplace in the world, behind only South Korea. According to an International Federation of Robotics report, the nation has 488 industrial robots for every 10,000 workers. Findings by advisory, broking and solutions firm Willis Towers Watson noted that the number is expected to double by 2020 to account for 29% of all work done by companies in the country.
Already, Singapore precision engineering firm PBA Group has been using the patent-pending Golden Retriever Automated Robot (AMR). The advanced goods-to-person technology automates inventory storage and replenishment; and transports items within production, warehouse, fulfilment and distribution centres.
Panasonic Singapore uses robots in its manufacturing operations. Over three years, this has led to higher skills and productivity for its workers and a rise of median salary by 35%.
Czech manufacturer in Singapore, Multi-Wing CZ, uses cobots that work alongside employees in the production line of its tailor-made ventilation systems for radiators and other markets. The cobots handle strenuous, repetitive tasks so the human employees can take on more rewarding responsibilities. Smart automation has allowed the company to speed up production and manage space constraints. Its production capacity increased by 336 hours per year while production costs dropped by 10% to 20%. In addition, the cobots can be deployed without safety barriers and so reduce the amount of workspace needed.
In anticipation of future needs in Singapore and worldwide – there will be an expected 3 million industrial robots globally by 2020 – local companies are already moving into robot production. PBA Group partnered Fortune 500 Korean industrial robot company, Hanwha Robotics, to launch a robot production facility in 2018. They manufacture the Hanwha Collaborative Robot which can pick and place items, palletise, screw-drive, polish and dispense.
Singapore start-up SESTO Robotics has also jumped onto the bandwagon. It is working to develop robots that automate traditionally labour-intensive work in factories, particularly those in semiconductor manufacturing. These robots are being designed to manage materials between work stations and move bulky items in warehouses.
Perhaps of greatest interest to Singapore is the use of robots in healthcare. With an ageing population – 13.7% of its people are 65 and older – the country runs the real risk of an elderly population with complex diseases living a longer time but with few caregivers available. There is an urgent need to use technology to both meet medical manpower needs and make healthcare more efficient and effective.
Since 2007, Singapore General Hospital (SGH) has been using a prostate interventional procedure robot to conduct prostate biopsies. Mona Lisa, the collaborative effort of doctors at the hospital and engineers at NTU, draws samples through the perineum instead of the rectum. This provides up to 90% accuracy and also greatly lowers the odds of infection compared to manual methods.
From 2013, over 15 healthcare institutions including two public hospitals – Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) and National University Hospital (NUH) - have been using robotic drug storage and dispensing machines. These robots retrieve medicine from cabinets when prescriptions have been filled, update stocks and send out alerts when supplies are low. They also print and label medicine with patients’ details.
Changi General Hospital has a robot porter that delivers documents, drugs, specimens and linen independently.
Robot masseuse Emma works at NovaHealth Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) clinic. She gives back and knee massages with a robotic arm equipped with soft silicon tips that are warmed to body temperature to mimic human touch.
There are more innovations in the pipeline. Stroke patients may soon have wearable robotic systems to rehabilitate them and help them in their daily routine. The ExoGlove is a robotic glove that draws inspiration from the movement of coral tentacles. It has soft actuators that can contract, extend and bend like the coral tentacles and help define movement with the use of air pressure. Its counterpart is a robotic sock that helps bedridden patients that improve blood flow and ankle mobility with robot-assisted ankle-foot exercises. This prevents deep vein thrombosis. Both wearable technology are undergoing clinical trials.
Under development also is a wearable sensor that lets healthcare professionals remotely monitor a patient’s mental state, movement and strength. This can prove useful in preventing suicides and make early intervention of other ailments easier.
NTU and TTSH are jointly working on a handheld acoustic sensor which looks like a stethoscope. Placed on a patient’s chest and paired with a smartphone app, the device can detect excess fluid in the lungs. A patent is pending for the device which has over 92% accuracy.
Singapore’s service industry, which suffers from chronic manpower shortage, has turned to robots as well. Apart from smart tray return robots at food courts, robots are being used to clean floors at coffee shops as well. FoodTastic at Choa Chu Kang Avenue 1 uses a red Elmo-looking automatic floor cleaning robot to help its human cleaners.
Rong Heng Seafood Restaurant at East Coast Park made the news in 2016 when it introduced robot waiters to meet its manpower needs. The robots, which speak Mandarin, deliver food, collect dirty dishes and can even entertain diners.
The world’s first socially autonomous robot, Nadine, created by scientists at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) is a receptionist at the Institute of Media Innovation (IMI). 1.7 metres tall and bearing a remarkable resemblance to its creator Professor Nadia Thalmann, director of IMI, Nadine can express moods and emotions, recognise faces, remember past conversations, and react to situations.
DBS Bank has a chatbot that interacts through Facebook Messenger. It can answer customers’ banking questions, provide answers about products and services, dispense advice on spending and make payments.
At Crosscoop Singapore, a humanoid robot named Nao sits at the reception providing information on a range of topics from preferred accounting firms to where to eat.
Robots are working in hotels, too. Park Avenue Rochester Hotel uses robots with driverless technology for deliveries. Named Robie, the robot assists in housekeeping by delivering duvets, pillow cases and towels; and transporting waste and bulky items between floors. Its robot co-worker is Cobie. The automated steward delivers food to guests in their rooms and can handle up to three food deliveries a trip.
M Social’s driverless technology robot is called Aura. The Philippe Starck-designed hotel uses the robot butler to deliver bottled water, fresh towels and toiletries to guests. Aura has a robot co-worker employed in the kitchen. Ausca is a front-of-house autonomous service chef robot that prepares eggs for guests at the hotel’s restaurant, Beast and Butterflies.
Sofitel Singapore City Centre has its own robot butlers, too. Xavier and Sophie are responsible for delivering items to rooms and opening the mini bars. The ever-smiling robots can speak, answer questions and move independently using Wi-Fi sensors to find their way to the rooms. The hotel has two housekeeping i-robots as well that help provide back-of-the-house services to guests.
At Hotel Jen, robots Jeno and Jena ride lifts and deliver amenities and in-room meals to guests. Equipped with advanced sensors, they can avoid obstacles in their paths and can even make phone calls to guests’ rooms.
YOTEL Singapore’s Yoshi and Yolanda robots are the first in the world with Simultaneous Localisation and Mapping (SLAM). Programmed to move autonomously and even take lifts to make deliveries to guests, they come with touchscreen, motion sensors and compartments for storage. Both robots have their own unique personalities and voices as well as facial expressions.
Andaz Singapore Hotel by Hyatt piloted a chatbot that helps customers from pre-booking right to their entire stay. The chatbot can attend to requests, and make recommendations on places of interest and food destinations.
At schools, students are not just learning robotics, they are learning from robots. Nao, who works at Crosscoop Singapore, was tested at MY World Preschool in Bukit Panjang where it taught children through dance.
My First Skool Jurong Point was part of a six-month trial in which Pepper, a humanoid robot developed by Japanese corporation Softbank Robotics, taught the preschool’s six-year-olds. Using interactive activities such as stories, memory games, songs and dances, Pepper assisted the teachers in making lessons effective and fun.
Little ones are not the only beneficiaries of robot teachers. In 2014, Lions Befrienders Senior Activity Centre at Mei Ling Street became the first to test out RoboCoach. The human-sized social robot developed by Ngee Ann Polytechnic (NP) students led the elderly in exercises using motion sensing technology. Since then, more RoboCoaches have been built and sent to work as companion bots.
Apart from being able to work longer than humans, robots can go where it is unsafe for humans to. This makes them eminently suitable for dangerous jobs. In 2018, the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) unveiled a new portable emergency responder robot, the Red Rhino Robot or 3R. 3R has autonomous firefighting capabilities and is set to work in teams with three other human firefighters. Also introduced was a Life Detection Robot which can help rescuers detect human life in urban search and rescue missions.
In July 2015, a swan-like GPS-guided robot drew much attention when it was introduced. Designed to blend in with its surroundings, the robot can take critical water quality measurements and transmit the results to researchers wirelessly. Because it is guided by GPS, the robot will not check the same area twice, making it highly efficient.
Most may not think about it but Singapore already has robots in many homes in the form of robot vacuum cleaners. The robots powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI) are part of a slew of consumer robots that include lawn mowers and pool cleaners. Nearly 100 million of these are expected to be shipped worldwide between 2015 and 2020 according to market intelligence firm Tratica.
The Future of Singapore with Robotics
Not quite flying cars, sentient cyborgs and Skynet domination in the style of the Terminator franchise but Singapore has a vision of a future in which robots feature prominently. The country’s determination to embrace robotics is part of its drive to become a Smart Nation, one in which technology enhances and empowers lives.
The island-state is marching into the digital age. Robotics is here to stay. But how far is the robot revolution going and what can we expect from it?
What we can look forward to:
Robots are already being put to work in Singapore’s manufacturing sector. With the government’s strong push in this direction, expect more robots on the factory floor.
This will lead to an increase in productivity. Precision engineering enterprise Feinmetall Singapore’s manufacturing plant experienced a 10% increase in productivity when it adopted automation. In an economy that has been registering flat labour productivity growth, the numbers are encouraging.
This is, however, just the tip of the iceberg. According to McKinsey & Company, manufacturing companies can see up to a 300% increase in productivity if they graduate to the use of collaborative robots or cobots and autonomous guided vehicles.
Robots can work longer hours, more consistently and with greater precision. With robots in the workplace performing the routine, repetitive tasks, there will be more efficiency. At KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH), its robotic bottle dispensing system (BDS) which loads, picks, assembles and labels medicine bottles saves up to 8,760 man-hours every year. It has also reduced patient waiting times by half during peak hours.
Robots can be sent where it is too dangerous for humans or be used to protect workers. This means greater safety in the workplace.
Singapore has already been exploring the use of robots in dangerous jobs like firefighting and defence. The Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) has tested out firefighting robots, exoskeletons that help firefighters carry more and move faster as well as a tracking system that can monitor firefighters’ location and vital signs through sensors on their equipment.
Singapore Technologies Engineering is developing unmanned surface vessels for the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) as part of RSN’s effort to create a fully unmanned mine countermeasure force.
Since robots can work more consistently and precisely, higher quality is to be expected. This will increase competitiveness and ensure sustainable growth.
No More Boring Work
As the Singapore worker becomes more educated and skilled, blue-collar, menial jobs will hold less of an attraction. Already, the Republic is seeing a labour gap with workers shunning non-PMET (professionals, managers, executives and technicians) jobs. Robots are a solution to this. With robots doing what humans will not, people are free to pursue higher-skilled, innovative jobs that are more fulfilling.
Creation Of New Jobs
There is a real fear that robots will displace humans at work. But automation can also create new jobs. People are needed to train, programme and maintain robots. Data scientists are required to understand the vast amounts of information machines collect. Humans are still needed to innovate, resolve situations and make executive decisions. While robots will take over many jobs, it is also estimated that robots will create up to two million jobs worldwide from 2017 to 2020.
As new jobs are created and old ones are streamlined, those who can perform tasks that only humans are capable of will be more valued. Jobs that require the human touch, those that demand digital skills such as data mining, cloud computing and technology will command higher pays. A study by Boston Consulting Group found that new jobs created in advanced manufacturing will pay an average 50% more than those jobs lost.
In Singapore, at SATS’ ecommerce AirHub, automation increased its mailbag processing capacity by 300% and halved the time taken. This has allowed its workers to be upskilled. The former roles of forklift driver, cargo handler and cargo coordinator have since been merged into one and the new role now commands a pay that is 10% higher. Panasonic Singapore’s use of cobots resulted in a median salary increase of its staff by 35%.
What we need to address:
Fear Of Losing Jobs
This is perhaps the greatest obstacle in the robotic race anywhere. A study by McKinsey & Company predicts that one in every four work activities in Singapore will be displaced by machines by 2030. A survey by consultancy Willis Towers Watson also found that AI and robotics will account for 29% of work in Asia in the next three years.
The fear of being displaced by robots is a real one. It is true that new jobs will be created. But those labour-intensive, repetitive jobs in manufacturing and services that can be easily automated will certainly be slashed. Workers who feel threatened will certainly be resistant to any introduction of automation.
Robotics require sophistication and can be costly. As a result, developed countries are better placed to pursue it. This can result in a greater divide between the rich and poor nations. Foreseeing that possibility, physicist Stephen Hawking, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk once signed a letter along with several others highlighting the need to balance research in technology with efforts to address the pitfalls.
Inequality can stifle global economic growth. As a tiny nation, Singapore is particularly sensitive to any shifts.
With robots filling the labour gap, there is less need for developed countries to turn to developing ones to manufacture their goods. This is good for a country like Singapore that suffers from labour shortage. It may not be good for third-world nations and the 800 million unemployed in the world, many of whom come from those countries.
Investing in robots is no small matter. A robot that stores and dispenses medicine, for example, costs S$119,500. Cleaner robots can cost as much as $85,000 a unit. It is money not every business can afford, particularly local SMEs.
How we can prepare for a future with robotics:
Help Workers Get Comfortable With Robots
Singapore’s workers need to get comfortable working with robots. To help, companies like SESTO Robotics have installed cameras on their cobots to monitor the attitudes and reactions of their human colleagues. The data is then used to educate workers and help them cooperate with the machines.
Others have adjusted the speed and colour of their robots to make them more acceptable to their human counterparts. The robot butlers at Hotel Jen, for instance, are coloured to look like they are wearing uniforms.
Singapore’s workers need to have their fears allayed. Robots will not and cannot entirely replace humans. McKinsey Singapore noted that only 43% of tasks in workplaces in Singapore can be automated by adapting current technology. Workers need to be reminded of this.
Training In New Skills
Companies can look at how they can improve employee expertise to cope with the changes. This involves acquiring new skills, particularly in robotics and data science. It also involves training workers for jobs that may not yet exist as jobs get redesigned.
Thankfully, Singapore is well-placed to do this. According to the Economist's Automation Readiness Index, Singapore is the third most prepared country in the world for the coming wave of intelligent automation, just behind South Korea and Germany. The S$500 SkillsFuture Credit given to every Singaporean aged 25 and above is one initiative the government has in place to encourage local workers to get trained.
Future-Proofing Existing Jobs
Workers should be trained to do jobs where robots cannot and where humans do best. Analytical skills, problem-solving abilities and decision-making capabilities will be increasingly valued as will building relationships, showing empathy and written and verbal communication. Transferrable skills that can be applied to other jobs and industries will also help.
Helping To Manage Costs
The government has in place several funding schemes to help companies adopt technology. This will help those who want to but cannot always afford to use robots.
In addition, there are other possibilities. Singapore company LionsBot International is planning to rent out its cleaner robots. At just S$1,200 a month, renting the robots will definitely be cheaper than buying one which would set a company back by anything between S$55,000 and S$85,000.
Robotics Education in Singapore
If there is one nation that understands the importance of education in shaping society and economy, it is Singapore. That is why the island-state has invested so much in making its education world class.
Over the years, it has succeeded remarkably in this. Singapore consistently leads international rankings in education. It is always among the top in OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) which estimates that local students are almost three years ahead of their American peers in Math.
The nation’s universities are regularly among the best. In the 2019 edition of the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings by Subject, nine subjects offered by the National University of Singapore (NUS) and five by the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) ranked amongst the top 10 globally.
Now that Singapore has set its sights on being a Smart Nation, it is ensuring that its education is in step with its vision. Here is a look at how the city’s education system is moulding minds to lead in the robotic revolution.
At pre-school level, exposure is the main strategy. A programme called PlayMaker was piloted in 2016 at more than 160 local preschools. Aimed at exposing children to computational thinking, the thinking behind coding, and robotics, robotic toys were incorporated into everyday lessons.
One such toy was the BeeBot, a robot bumble bee that helped the children improve their language skills, mathematic abilities, teamwork and logical thinking. The bee could be programmed by the children to move to the right answers on the mat.
Then, there was Kibo which was used to teach logical sequencing. The four-wheeled wooden robot had sensors to detect light and sound as well as a barcode scanner. The children would put together wooden blocks with instructions on them. The structure would then be scanned by Kibo which would follow the instructions.
Another tech tool were circuit stickers. Copper tape, watch batteries and LED lights made up the kit which was used to encourage children to create items that would light up when connected to the batteries. This let the little ones learn through participation, exploration and experimentation, paving the way for them to innovate in the future.
Robots feature in kindergarten classrooms in other ways as well. Humanoid robots Pepper and Nao were deployed at two pre-schools as teachers in a pilot programme. Four-foot tall Pepper went to My First Skool at Jurong Point to read to the student and help in music and math classes. Nao told stories and danced at My World in Bukit Panjang. Warmly welcomed by both pupils and teachers, educational robots may soon become a permanent feature of Singapore’s education system.
Some 25 kindergartens have introduced computational thinking into their curricula. Using the School of Fish programme, each child can use a virtual buddy in a game app to guide them through various activities that teach them problem-solving, drawing on concepts related to computer science such as algorithmic thinking and decomposition.
Long before robotics made its way into classrooms, enrichment centres were already offering it as part of their programmes and holiday workshops. Now, there are entire centres dedicated solely to coding, the language of computers; and robotics, one application of that language. Children as young as five are taught coding, allowing them to create games on laptops and mobile apps; and given the chance to build their own robots.
These are some enrichment centres that specialise in coding and robotics:
- Coding Lab
- Empire Code
- First Code Academy
- Let ‘Em Play Singapore
- Loshberry Code Studio
- R²D² Lab
- Roboto Academy
- Robotics Connection
- The Keys Academy
Centres like Tinkercademy and Nullspace have even extended their lessons to schools and organisations, helping in co-curricular activities (CCA) and team-building.
Primary & Secondary School
Several primary and secondary schools offer robotics as a CCA. But Singapore has gone well beyond the individual efforts of schools. In 2014, the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA), now called the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA,) and Singapore Polytechnic (SP) collaborated to introduce Robotics & Maker Academy (RMA). Over three, years, the S$2.8-million programme benefitted 10,000 students in 30 primary and secondary schools. Those who took part were taught coding and programming of robots through workshops and competitions. Educational robots were also used to teach STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). RMA was part of the nation’s plan to grow a new generation of digital natives.
In 2015, IMDA and the Ministry of Education (MOE) jointly offered the Code for Fun Enrichment Programme to all primary and secondary schools. Students were exposed to coding and computational thinking and their real-world applications using programming language, robotic kits such as Leo Wedo and MoWay and microcontrollers like Arduino. The initiative has since reached 56,000 students.
In May 2017, the Singapore government pledged S$3 million as part of IMDA and MOE’s Digital Maker Programme to distribute 100,000 pocket-size, codeable gadgets to school children and adults over two years to teach basic coding. Called micro:bit, the device comes with LED lights, sensors, a Bluetooth chip and an accelerometer. By writing codes, users can use the micro:bit to perform different functions including count steps, locate belongings and automate a watering system for gardens.
Robotics has moved beyond the realm of co-curricular activities into classrooms as well. MOE is planning to roll out Applied Learning programmes (ALP) to all primary schools by 2023. Robotics and coding applied to the real world are part of ALP. More than 50 secondary schools now also offer robotics as an O-level subject. Computing is offered as an O-level subject in 19 schools.
Polytechnics like SP, Temasek Polytechnic and Nanyang Polytechnic offer robotics amongst their STEM-related courses. NUS has an Advanced Robotics course, NTU offers a Robotics and Mechatronics stream while Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) has one on Industrial Robotics.
Singapore’s robotics courses at tertiary institutes may not yet have the reputation of those at world-class universities like Carnegie-Mellon University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But given the country’s commitment to its education system, it would not take long for its tertiary-level robotics programme to attain international standards.
For the workforce, in addition to workshops offered by enrichment centres and tertiary education facilities, there are courses in robotics available as part of the national movement, SkillsFuture. Singaporeans aged 25 and above are given S$500 under this scheme to fund their training.
Singapore knows full well that education paves the way for a labour force that is resilient and future-ready. Robotics will only take up an increasingly large part the local education system’s focus and funds as the Republic strives to realise its goal to be a Smart Nation.
Why Singapore is Uniquely Placed to Pursue Robotics
Singapore is boldly going where many industrial nations are striving to be. The island-state has set its sights on being a Smart Nation, one transformed by technology to take the lead in the digital age.
One component of this master plan is robotics and the city has already made much headway in this aspect. It is the second most automated country in the world, behind South Korea. According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), for every 10,000 workers, Singapore has 488 robots. This is well above the global average of 74 industrial robots, the American average of 84 and the European average of 99.
Robotics is one of the most interdisciplinary fields and for it to succeed, several factors need to come into play. Thankfully, Singapore ticks all the boxes, which is why the Republic is well-placed to be in pole position in the robotics race.
Singapore’s government is nothing if not dedicated to promoting robotics in the country and this is one of the strongest factors for the country’s success in this area. Because of its unflinching commitment, it has embarked on realising its vision on several fronts.
The Republic is on track to be part of Industry 4.0, the fourth industrial revolution where smart technology like robotics, 3D printing and the Internet of Things (IoT) transform the manufacturing sector.
It is also striding ahead in the adoption of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Global consultancy Accenture estimates that by 2035, Singapore’s economy will stand to gain the most from AI compared to countries like the US, Germany and Japan. AI will double Singapore’s economic growth rate and increase productivity by 41%. This will add up to S$180 billion in gross value-add.
Because of the government’s vision, it has been pumping funds into robotics. In 2016, it announced that it would commit an additional S$450 million over three years into the National Robotics Programme (NRP) which was introduced in 2015. In 2018, it put in another S$50 million into a joint venture between NRP and Temasek Holdings. The next year, S$540 million was set aside for the creation of AI systems in medicine. This brought the funds reserved for AI, robotics and supercomputers to a whopping S$900 million. The money is part of the S$19-billion Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2020 Plan.
Several schemes under the S$4.5 billion Industry Transformation Programme were also introduced in 2016 to help industries automate, innovate, globalise and get financing. For companies, there are four initiatives they can count on. The Automation Support Package is targeted at SMEs in particular and involves grants of up to S$1 million. Spring Singapore, now combined with IE Singapore to become Enterprise Singapore, also offers investment allowance for automation equipment. Together with the Automation Support Package, the two schemes provide over S$400 million in support over three years. There are also financial and tax incentives as well as a S$100 million increase to the SME Mezzanine Growth Fund.
Singapore provides excellent infrastructural support for robotics. It has highly reliable, efficient and affordable digital connectivity. 97% of its people have superfast access to the Internet. In a report from Internet metrics company Ookla, Singapore topped world rankings in Internet speed. It is in the forefront of 5G development and has been rolling out fibre network island-wide. By 2020, Singapore is expected race South Korea to be the Asian leader in the introduction of 5G services.
In 2016 alone, the Republic awarded S$2.82 billion worth of info-comm technology contracts through the Smart Nation initiative, over 65% of which was devoted to building physical infrastructure such as cabling and networks, high-speed Wi-Fi and IT security.
Robotics requires hefty investments. Singapore’s economy is strong enough to support that. In 2018, its economy grew 3.3%, close to the 3.5% growth in 2017. In 2018, it was the third richest country in the world with a GDP per capita of over S$129,100, ahead of the UAE at number 8, Switzerland at number 9 and the US at number 11.
Talents & Research
Singapore is serious about building its local talent pool in the digital economy. This makes the country attractive to companies who are making advances in robotics. In fact, one of the reasons German multinational software corporation SAP chose Singapore to open its innovation centre for Machine Learning in 2016 was because it knew it could count on the availability of PhD students and data scientists in the city.
One of the ways the country prepares its population for robotics is through its education system. The subject is introduced at every level from pre-school to tertiary education and worker training. National University of Singapore (NUS) also has a programme with Alibaba Cloud that lets its business analytics students take up education certifications and become interns so they can use their skills in the business world.
There are several research facilities that look into robotics including the National Research Foundation (NRF), a department under the prime minister’s office which develops policies and plans for research, innovation and enterprise. A key initiative that NRF has is the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) programme with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The programme offers four-year graduate fellowships which includes tuition for students at the affiliated schools, and undergraduate and postdoctoral research fellowships. NRF also facilitates public-private partnerships that promote research.
Helping to further drive innovation in robotics are research universities – NUS, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and Singapore Polytechnic (SP). These often work with companies. For example, NTU partnered Singapore-based engineering firm Singapore Technologies Engineering Ltd. Together they started an advanced robotics and autonomous systems laboratory. The laboratory develops new technology, products and services; and increases employment opportunities for researchers and scientists as well as exposure for students in industrial R&D.
Singapore has drawn world research facilities to its shores as well. In 2017, Alibaba picked Singapore to open a laboratory under its Discovery, Adventure, Momentum and Outlook (DAMO) academy programme. The facility, part of a US$15 billion initiative over three years, develops new technology to drive the company’s growth. In 2018, NUS and Grab set up the S$6 million Grab-NUS AI Lab. Up to 100 researchers and students work on cutting-edge smart mobility solutions in the laboratory. NTU has a similar partnership with PayPal and Nividia where more than 60 scientists and researchers on its staff work with the global tech companies.
In addition, Singapore creates an environment that encourages innovation. The Jurong Innovation District, announced in 2016, is a dedicated industrial site for businesses, researchers, students and advanced manufacturing and engineering start-ups to develop and test their innovations.
Singapore society is highly sophisticated. Consumers are open to AI, which is a component of robotics. A 2017 Accenture survey showed that 35% of the country was ready for hyper-personalised services. Though a small number of people have voice-enabled devices, 71% of them use the devices on a regular basis.
This makes it easier for the country to move further into robotics. The government has partnered Microsoft to develop intelligent chatbots that can deliver tech-based, human-like customer services. DBS Bank also collaborated with US Kasisto, a spin-off of the same R&D institute that developed Apple’s Siri, to create a banking chatbot in POSB digibank.
Because of the factors above, Singapore has been particularly good at attracting global players in robotics to the country. This has added to the vibrancy of the local scene, making it easier for the nation to become a robotics hub.
Multinational UK corporation Darktrace, which created AI cybersecurity technology to detect threats, set up its regional headquarters in Singapore in 2015. Taiwanese AI start-up Appier also opened its regional operations in the city. Appier helps companies solve business problems with customisable AI solutions.
Private Sector Support
Singapore’s private sector is very much on board with the country’s emphasis on robotics. Most of the country’s major automation and electronics businesses and the locally-based units of many global manufacturers are part of the Singapore Industrial Automation Association (SIAA). The organisation sponsors several events that promote robotics including Asian Robotics Week.
In 2016, Singapore precise engineering company PBA Group opened a non-profit robotics hub. Robotics Automation Centre of Excellence (RACE) helps SMEs and factory owners better understand robotic solutions so they can adopt them.