Skip to main content

China’s workforce is shrinking at an accelerating rate, paving the way for robots to revolutionize labour

A cleaning worker passes a Gaussian Robotics cleaning robot at an office complex in Beijing. The robot takes an hour to clean 3,000 square metres of floor, and while it's an expensive piece of hardware, its manufacturers expect it to be cost-competitive with human cleaners within a year or two.Wu Hao/The Globe and Mail

This is part of a Globe and Mail series in which Beijing correspondent Nathan VanderKlippe looks at China’s present and future challenges before his return to Canada.

The robot revolution that Gaussian Robotics envisions typically reveals itself at night, emerging into airports and shopping malls, armed with spinning pads, reservoirs of water and a laser vision system.

The Ecobot Scrubber 75 can clean 3,000 square metres of floor in an hour. It navigates its own route, using three-dimensional vision, touch sensors and collision bumpers to skirt obstacles and scrub airport and shopping-mall floors for six hours, no humans required.

In two or three years, the company’s director of overseas business Allen Zhang estimates, the technology will be good enough for cleaning robots to tackle “any kind of scenario or environment for floor cleaning.” In short order, the only human needed to clean floors in a large space such as a warehouse will be the person to maintain the robots, Mr. Zhang says.

What’s good for Gaussian is also, the company believes, good for China, a country whose rapidly aging population is shedding workers in great number.

Between 2017 and 2037, the working-age population is expected to shrink by 103 million people – a loss of one in eight people, with a further 100 million crossing the retirement threshold by 2050.

In the immediate future, the change will be concentrated in rural areas; the ranks of urban workers, who are considered more economically productive, will continue to rise, buttressing growth.

But demographic change is nonetheless arriving at speed for a country that built the foundation of its economic growth on what researchers have, with only slight exaggeration, described as a limitless supply of labour. The working-age population has already shrunk nearly 4 per cent since 2015, reaching levels in 2020 previously not expected until 2030.

The advent of such a rapidly aging population “is bound to bring very unfavourable socioeconomic consequences,” the Institute of Population and Labor Economics under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences warned in a 2019 report.

The country’s cleaning industry, with an unusually old work force, is a bellwether. “If you have someone who is 55 years old, it’s kind of young in this sector,” says Cheng Haotian, a Cambridge-educated entrepreneur who founded Gaussian. In the next five years alone, the industry expects to lose 20 to 30 per cent of its work force, even as the need for cleaners increases along with floorspace.

To fill the gap, “no other means will work, except for modern technology – like robots,” Mr. Cheng said.

Gaussian CEO Cheng Haotian says robots will be vital to filling the cleaning industry's needs as more Chinese people age out of it.Wu Hao/The Globe and Mail

Gaussian’s machines are expensive. But as labour costs rise and the technology improves, Mr. Cheng expects his devices to be cost-competitive with humans in as little as a year or two.

China’s industrial planners hope for the same. A full deployment of robots in China will “liberate” 240 million workers, a white paper published last year by the China Association of Mechatronics Technology and Applications predicts.

That number fits tidily with the forecasted decrease in the labour force. China’s manufacturing industry today uses 187 robots for every 10,000 workers, not far off the United States. The association believes Chinese robot installations will reach 500 per 10,000 by 2030. Just as the car displaced the horse and the computer took over from the typewriter, “the day robots replace human workers in industrial production will finally arrive,” it writes.

Robotics is one of eight industries deemed core priorities for China in its newest five-year plan, released this year.

There is, however, reason for skepticism.

Earlier this year, experts at the People’s Bank of China warned about the severity of coming population changes, pointing to Japan as an example of an aging country where technology has failed to maintain economic growth. “Realize that education and technological progress cannot compensate for the decline in population,” the paper warned.

Foxconn owner Terry Gou, shown in 2017, once had bold predictions for his company's use of robots.Eason Lam/Reuters

China has so far seen reality win over the robots. In 2011, Terry Gou, the billionaire owner of iPhone manufacturer Foxconn, predicted his company would install a million robots in three years. By 2020, it had reached just 80,000. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

Robotics specialist Ilian Bonev was an early skeptic of the Foxconn plans, writing in 2013 that the company can’t reach its goals. A scholar at the École de technologie supérieure and co-founder of Mecademic Robotics – the company’s ultraprecise devices can manipulate objects as small as human cells – he nonetheless remains clear-eyed about how much robots can accomplish. Robots can be peerless tools for precise, repetitive operations. But one calibrated to process a particular part needs to be reprogrammed if so much as the colour of the part changes, Prof. Bonev said. “Even if you change the lighting in your plant, you have to go back to the camera software and tweak parameters again, until it can see the part,” he said.

It may be more productive to have machines help, rather than replace humans, said Georg Stieler, who has spent years in Shanghai as managing director of German technology consulting firm STM. Newly developed systems can use artificial intelligence and computer vision to spot production-line bottlenecks, enabling redesigns that can make people more productive. “We won’t see the end of human labourers in factories any time soon,” he said.

Nor in office buildings. At Gaussian’s own Shanghai headquarters, people clean the floors, since its rows of cubicles are too complicated for its own robots to effectively navigate. The company is still struggling to program its robots for what it calls “corner cases,” such as operating in an underground parking lot without scratching vehicles or causing traffic jams. “It’s just a matter of time,” Mr. Cheng says.

But Mr. Stieler worries about a country whose demographic outlook he called “really bleak.”

“It will be very challenging,” he said, “for automation to solve this problem in an adequate period of time.”

More: A parting view from Beijing

Nathan VanderKlippe has been The Globe’s Beijing-based correspondent since 2013 and has seen the ambitions and discontents of Xi Jinping’s China take shape. He outlines some key areas to watch around China’s political and economic ambitions as it also represses ethnic minorities and holds two Canadians captive.

The Globe and Mail

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

Check Following for new articles