On August 29, 1997, at 2.14 AM Eastern Standard Time, Skynet, an AI-based “defence” system becomes self-aware, launching a nuclear strike on Russia which quickly leads to nuclear Armageddon and the subsequent rise of the machines. And of course, the birth of the Terminator movie franchise, which is still driven to box office success by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s youthful CGI avatar, even as the actor himself approaches super senior citizen status.
That, of course, was the movies. Almost a quarter of a century after that fictional judgment day, we are yet to be kowtowing to machine overlords. Far from a rogue AI, it is a rogue virus which threatened to bring down apocalypse on humankind. Even as the growing number of vaccine approvals around the world — including in India — leads one to hope that life as we knew it before 2020 might return, there is one area of activity which the pandemic has given a booster thrust to — robotics.
The use of robots — not just in manufacturing but in fields as far apart as home cleaning and healthcare, in retail and services and at the beating core of India’s tech industry in the form of AI-powered robotic co-workers (or cobots) — skyrocketed last year, as the Covid-19 pandemic not only ravaged businesses but created a “new normal” for work.
India did not even rank among the top 10 countries in the world when it came to robots just a few years ago. In 2018, there were under 5,000 industrial robot installations in India. Compare this with the 154,000 industrial robots which China installed that same year, over three times the number managed by the runner-up country, Japan. South Korea, an early frontrunner in adoption of robotics, was number three but was well ahead by another parameter — robot density. According to an International Federation of Robotics report, South Korea has 8,555 robots per 10,000 human workers, eight times the world average. World leader Singapore has a staggering 918/10,000 ratio!
At that time, India was seen as a market with potential but restrained by several policy bottlenecks, archaic labour laws preventing rapid modernisation and robotisation of manufacturing, a vast but poorly skilled workforce and poor quality higher education, particularly in science and engineering. In an employability survey conducted the same year (2018), half the nearly six million engineering graduates India churns out every year were found to be unemployable, lacking basic technical, cognitive and language skills.
There was also a perception channel. India’s biggest challenge has been to create adequate jobs for its huge, but largely unskilled workforce. The government’s ambitious ‘Make in India’ initiative, and the productivity-linked incentive scheme in sectors like telecom is already yielding results — but cost and quality pressures means that the manufacturing line is increasingly robotised. As Singapore’s former Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam pointed out a few years ago, India was in a race between “demography and technology”.
But the situation is changing very quickly. India saw 26,300 industrial robot installations in 2020, according to IFR. Within five years, India managed to double the number of robot installations. Going forward, it is expected to be one of the fastest growing markets for industrial robots and human-robot collaborative cobots.
Home grown technologies
More importantly, India is also moving quickly in developing home grown technologies — and manufacturing capabilities — to cater to not just the growing demand for robots at home, but worldwide. In fact, robots will be one of the biggest business opportunities of the decade which has just started. According to Mordor Intelligence, the global robotics market was valued at $39.72 billion in 2019 and is expected to register a CAGR of 25.38 per cent over the forecast period from 2020 to 2025.
In this, the Asia-Pacific region will be the hottest growing. While China, South Korea and Singapore will continue to handily beat India, India’s large manufacturing base, and a growing tendency among global manufacturers to de-risk their China bet with investments in manufacturing capacity in India, means that India is well placed to meet the world’s demand for both manufactured goods and the intelligent machines that will make those manufactured goods.
Another growth area is going to be military robots. In fact robot fighters — from robot soldiers to robot tanks — have been proliferating in defence shows around the world. India has already become a major consumer of military robots and plans to even deploy robot soldiers within the next five years. It is already the world’s largest buyers of military drones. And the first to test ISRO’s ambitious Gaganyaan project to send an Indian into space will be a humanoid robot which will become the first Indian ‘astronaut’ to be launched into space from India.
Meanwhile, the Covid-19 pandemic has given a booster shot to Indian robotics start-ups. KARMI-bot, from the Kerala-based Asimov Robotics, a humanoid robot, has been a Covid warrior in its own right, serving meals and medicines to patients in a contactless fashion. Gurugram-based Milagrow Human-tech has developed a humanoid ELF robot which remotely monitors Covid patients. Bengaluru start-up Invento Robotics has deployed robots for hospitals which thermal scan patients for Covid symptoms, dispense information and even dispense sanitiser!
But these are all fledgling efforts and largely start-up driven, acutely dependent on global venture funding to grow. If India wants to become a robotics superpower — and it has the potential to become one — it needs to ensure that not only the policy environment is conducive to creating a market for robots but also ensure that the pipeline of innovation is kept properly supplied with the right kind of talent.
India has now several institutions of higher learning which offer education and training in robotics but we need the kind of radical transformation in education which powered India’s first IT revolution to win in the race for the intelligent machines.