May 18, 2016      

Robots are here. The robotics industry is transforming the world. Not only are companies and consumers feeling the heat; countries are feeling it, too, particularly around Asian robotics.

In March, when a South Korean national and champion lost to Google’s AlphaGo program in the ancient Chinese game of Go, the whole of South Korea felt it. To many, it was more like a national defeat than one person losing to artificial intelligence.

What did South Korea do next? The government quickly set up a $860 million fund for AI. It invited several leading South Korean firms to work together. The goal is to not only reassure its citizens, but also get ready for tomorrow.

A snapshot of the Asian robotics industry and strategies

On the other side of the world, Belarus is a nation of nearly 10 million people in Europe. Belarus has announced that it would invest $1 billion by 2020 in various areas including robotics. Many people outside Europe may not even know where Belarus is located, let alone associate the country with advanced technologies. In the past, some countries might have felt that they could not advance because of one variable or another, but automation is reinventing the game for everybody.

Nations large and small are starting to realize how important the robotics industry has become to trade, to talent, and to treasure (prosperity). For now, countries are joining the race in two ways: through entrepreneurship or national policy. Which way is India heading? What is the rest of Asia doing?

Japan’s PM wants robots everywhere

Japan wants to generate almost $22 billion in sales from robotics by 2020. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is so enthusiastic about robotics that he wants the big Japanese firms to take robotics to every corner of the Japanese economy and society. He has established the Robot Revolution Initiative Council to make it happen and overcome local obstacles.

From hotels to hospitals to homes, all kinds of robots are indeed entering Japanese society and economy.

China spends on even more robots

In 2014, China bought 56,000 units, becoming the biggest buyer of industrial robots in the world, according to the International Federation of Robotics. That was just the beginning.

On one hand, China is offering $150 billion in subsidies to local companies to adopt robotics. On the other hand, China has set its sights on being a global leader in supplying robots to the world. By 2020, China wants at least three Chinese firms to be globally recognized like the U.S.’s Rethink Robotics Inc. or Denmark’s Universal Robots A/S.

In addition, when it comes to sales of robots at home, China wants its companies to have at least 45 percent of the market share. Many of these initiatives are defined and driven by “Made in China” — the government’s vision to make China the world’s advanced manufacturing hub by 2025.

South Korea is dense and invests in its robotics industry

In terms of density, South Korea already has more robots — 386 robots per 10,000 people — than rest of the world (based on 2015 data). Yet that is not enough. Apart from starting a new research and innovation program for AI, South Korea also wants a robotics industry of 600 companies and 34,000 workers by 2018, generating 7 trillion won in revenue (nearly $6 billion).

Thailand hopes for a robotic reboot

In the 1990s, Thailand was a so-called Asian Tiger. The Asian financial crisis of 1998 and later, political upheavals, and natural disasters pushed the economy into the slow lane. Of course, the rise of China and India did not help, either. Like Belarus, Thailand is looking to reboot its economy through advanced technologies.

The government has identified robotics as one of the top sectors to take the country’s economy forward. Thailand has also created a $600 million startup fund. The goal is to increase its number of startups from 2,500 now to 10,000 by 2018. Who knows, but you might someday call Thailand the “Robotics Tiger.”

Singapore’s smart projects

Singapore continues to inspire the world with its ambitions and approach. By 2021, Singapore wants to launch an operating system that will connect together 100 million smart projects. Without a doubt, many of those objects will have robotics hardware as well as software in them.

Most importantly, Singapore is transforming itself from just a consumer of technology to a creator. Singapore has also launched a National Robotics Program with a $450 million budget. The government wants local companies to use the fund and adopt robotics. Singapore wants to improve labor productivity and make its workforce future-ready.

Indian robotics industry grows from the bottom up

While countries across Asia and around the world have national or regional policies for adopting and advancing with robotics, India does not have a unified policy for commercial robotics. Instead, robotics in India is developing through entrepreneurship and startups. There is no specific fund or subsidy for robotics. All of the money invested in robotics is self-funded, angel money, private equity, or venture capital.

By not having a national policy or fund for robotics, is India making a mistake? Or is India making a path of its own into the future? Will India’s robotics startups become billion-dollar firms on their own? Will India be able to compete for mind- and market share with South Korea, Japan, and China?

While these are all relevant questions, there is even a bigger question that India’s position on robotics raises: What is or should be the role of government in robotics? Should robotics be developed through subsidies and tax breaks like an old industry? What can those developing robotics strategies learn from comparing different approaches?