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The government encourages automation but are Singapore’s people and businesses ready?

A video shared on Facebook shows a ‘Smart Tray Return’ robot in a food court, moving around with completely empty with a worker just behind it, cleaning up the tables.

The robot is supposed to be a positive addition to the food court scene in Singapore, to increase efficiency, but clearly the robot isn’t being used the way it should be, resulting in the need for manual labour still.

Now, the robot only works if customers are proactive in clearing their own table and returning the trays into the robot’s cavity – but not one does that. So in the end, the robot is better off being just a moving billboard.

The robot itself travels in a pre-determined circular route, pausing at intervals, and not giving way or recognising when there’s a person in its path. So not only is the robot waste of energy and space (because Singaporeans have yet to develop a habit of clearing their on trays), it’s also a hazard to the elderly.

Now, the stress on automation and artificial intelligence has been increasing these past few years with industries such as automotive, clothing, and other manufacturing industries utilising more robots. This move towards automation seems like the next step that many countries are taking in the name of development, and Singapore is no exception.

Two years ago in his 2016 National Day Rally Speech at ITE College Central, PM Lee talked about a local SME that was developing autonomous robots to be used in different settings from semiconductor plants and logistics warehouses to hospital. He praised them for finding new markets and creating new jobs.

That same year, the government announced a new Automation Support Package to support companies to automate, drive productivity and scale up. One component of the scheme includes a 100% Investment Allowance for automation equipment and a grant to support the rolling out of automation projects, like the ‘Smart Tray Return’ robot.

On the surface, it seems as though Singapore is ready for advancement, ready to tackle the next stage of development and wade head first into the world of automation. But although the technology may be ready, automation without a community that can learn how to work with it ends up being just a waste of time and energy.

The introduction of the robots in the food court is a smart idea and I can see where the company is coming from, trying to make things simpler for customers and stall owners. But if no one is using the robot for its intended purpose, then is it worth just letting it run around in circles?