by Dr. Kai-Fu Lee
DURING THE SARS crisis almost 20 years ago, shops in Beijing were completely closed. It forced one retailer, Jingdong Century Trading Co, to try its luck online. That retailer was JD.com, today one of China’s e-commerce giants. Fast forward to 2020. Amid the covid-19 crisis, JD.com managed a 20% spike in sales with the help of a new, automated warehouse that can process more than 1.5m orders a day. In Wuhan, it delivered packages using robots and drones. It plans to open 1,000 automated restaurants this year across China.
The efforts are representative of a broader shift amid the pandemic towards automation, artificial intelligence and digitisation. The Chinese economy is undergoing a great robotic leap forward, as it removes human touch-points—literally—in its operations. Online businesses, algorithms and automation save costs, boost efficiency and protect public health. Though the shift predates covid-19, the crisis has accelerated it. Social distancing via automation will have wide-ranging implications. As goes China, so may go business everywhere.
People used to expect to interact with other people to get things done. No longer. Much work can be largely handed over to a combination of software and robotics. That’s true for blue-collar jobs in health care, food service, delivery, manufacturing, logistics, transport and education. And it is increasingly happening for back-office white-collar jobs in finance, customer service, sales, human resources, law and accounting.
Historically, automation tends to happen when economic difficulties coincide with maturing technologies. Companies feel they need to cut costs by slashing jobs and trying out new technologies. And once a company has replaced an employee with a robot and proven its efficacy, it is unlikely to go back. Robots don’t get sick. They don’t strike. They don’t demand higher wages for dangerous jobs. In fact, they are ideal for dangerous jobs, which in a pandemic is any job that requires interaction with people. It is no wonder that David Autor, an economist at MIT, calls the covid-19 pandemic and economic crisis “an automation-forcing event”.
China is uniquely positioned to lead the world in the automation economy. Though the country has a large workforce, the cost of labour has increased ten-fold in the last 20 years and is now more than twice as high as Vietnam’s. As the workshop of the world, it has an incentive to automate its manufacturing sector, which enjoys a lead on high-quality products. China is now the world’s largest market for industrial robotics and the fastest-growing, surging by 21% to $5.4bn in 2018. This represents a third of global sales. As a result, Chinese companies are developing a leg-up on the world in terms of how to work with metallic colleagues.