It is but obvious that robots are playing an increasingly critical role in the lives of people.
One finds robots in manufacturing, in serving people in restaurants, as receptionists, as nurses, as firefighters and even as soldiers. As we all know, not all robots look like humans (i.e. they are not humanoids). And hence we often tend to miss out the robots that have slowly but surely penetrated into almost every aspect of our lives.
So why are we discussing robotics now? Robotics has reached a level where a combination of technologies will make the robotics industry explode in the near future. We have artificial intelligence combining with speech technologies, combining with sensors and all-pervasive connectivity, leading to more powerful and more useful robots getting created. We do not even realize that an autonomous vehicle (i.e. a self-driving vehicle) is nothing but a robot, in which we will be sitting and getting transported.
So why is it crucial to bring up these developments in the Indian context? It is because, robotics is another “big bus” that we are poised to miss. Yes, the country does have numerous startups and deep skills in robotics. But it is not enough to be able to get any significant slice of the global robotics market. Moreover, we as a country, need robots for our own unique usage, such as replacing dangerous manual scavenging with robots, or tackling terrorism. For that matter, even though India is a young nation with perhaps the largest population of people below 24, we are also home to one of the largest populations of the old, who would need support through robotics.
There are a large number of areas where India would need help of robotics. For example, it will take us considerable time to have the large number of high-quality teachers, needed to educate the large number of the young population that we have, in order to leverage the demographic dividend. It will be too late if we develop the teachers in the traditional manner. Robotics will play a key role in providing quality education at scale. Similarly, healthcare, agriculture, mining etc will all transform with robotics, or we as a nation will be caught in a low productivity cycle.
As usual, there may be concerns that robots will take away jobs. It is not a tenable argument for stopping the march of technology, as technology will move forward relentlessly and if India is not at the forefront, we will be crushed under the wheels of obsolescence and low productivity.
Globally, the robotics market size was valued at $103.95 billion in 2019, and is projected to nearly double to $209 billion by 2025. This is a conservative estimate. With the maturing of the enabling technologies, and greater adoption of robotics in emerging economies, the size of the robotics market is set to explode. In fact, in October 2017, Saudi Arabia even granted citizenship to a robot named Sophia, making it the first robot citizen of the world.
Globally, we are also witnessing many new players with deep pockets, entering the robotics market. The ABB, Hitachi, Mitubishi etc are now being joined by new-age players like Tesla, GreyOrange etc. Such new players will only contribute to democratization of the market and expansion of the market. For the record, GreyOrange is an Indian company. There is also a larger acceptance of robots even in our daily lives. Many households have adopted a cleaning vacuum robot during the COVID-imposed lockdown. We are also flying in fly-by-wire aircrafts which are, for the most part of their flight, nothing but an autonomous flying robot.
So, what is India doing about it? Robotics has figured in Indian Economic Survey 2017-18 as a priority area, but it has drawn limited attention in terms of policy or plan. In parallel, the developments in private sector and few research institutions in India has been laudable. In the paper, “Robotics in India”, published in the Journals of India, several impediments had been identified for development of robotics in India. These include Lack of a robotics hardware ecosystem, resulting in imports of most of the components for robotics. In addition, regulatory issues on dual-use certifications is leading to challenges in certifications. The high import duties (in some cases), and bottlenecks in customs as part of the permission driven environments, is playing a deadening hand.
India also has many financial disincentives built in. Any company which imports robots into India, currently pays about 26.85% (7.5 Basic Customs duty plus 18% GST) tax. This is a serious impediment to mass adoption of robots. This is compounded by limited availability of critical human resources. According to the FICCI-TSMG Advanced Manufacturing Survey 2016, lack of quality human resources with necessary skills and expertise to work with advanced manufacturing technologies negatively impacts the ability to undertake cutting edge R&D in India. There is also a significant mindset shift required in order to grow the industry. In spite of the Government’s focus on robotics lately, the notion that robots will destroy jobs, severely hampers an enthusiastic adoption of the technology and growing of the market.
India needs to quickly harness its policy and regulatory tools to achieve global leadership in robotics. Fortunately, India has a strong IT base, that can provide the fuel to propel the robotics Industry in India. India must leverage its advantages to be able to be a net exporter of robots in the near future.