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The Robots Are Coming to the Developing World Too

First World workers aren’t the only ones who will feel the social and economic dislocations that the future will bring. Indeed China is already the largest market for industrial robots in the world, surpassing Japan last year. A fifth of global industrial robot sales took place in China, says China’s CCTV:

“Before the robots took over, there were seven workers working in this assembly line,” Li Guolin, vice president of Air Conditioner Department, Midea Group, said.

Efficient, working 24-7, no need to talk, eat, or drink, and best of all, you don’t have to pay them. There are more benefits to having robots working for you. They don’t get hurt.

“The injury problems are solved, and efficiency is improved,” Sun Zhiqiang, president of Guangzhou Ruisong Technology, said.

And they take care of the labour shortage.

“It’s very hard to recruit workers in a hard working environment such as the chemical and steel industries, so there’s a lot of space for industrial robots,” Zhou Chaosen, deputy secretary of Guangzhou Federation Of Robotics, said.

This is a natural and inevitable development. In the long run, too, a world in which no one has to earn their daily bread doing tedious and often dangerous work on assembly lines. But in the near term, the social and economic consequences of this transition are going to be profound. Workers in low-wage countries like China will have to face the reality that technology has already been developed that can replace many of their jobs—and not just with robots, but with other information-age forms of automation in non-industrial settings like software and finance.

The transition from a manufacturing-based employment system is going to be tumultuous all around the world. It’s important to remember that developing countries may well have the hardest time adapting. It’s easier for rich countries to handle this than for poor ones; rich countries have resources to cushion the blow, and their political institutions are better able to process the changes, spread out the losses, and create new opportunities. How the Chinese system copes with these wrenching changes is yet another important test of the durability of a system that has staked so much on modernizing and pulling the country out of grinding rural poverty.

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