創新工場董事長兼首席執行官

創新工場人工智能工程院院長

新冠疫情加速中國自動化大躍遷

2003年非典疫情期間,北京的實體商店全數關門歇業,這迫使一家零售商嘗試互聯網轉型,開拓新市場,這家零售商后來發展為當今中國電子商務巨頭之一:京東。再把時間快進到我們所在的2020年新冠疫情期間,京東大舉推行新型自動化倉儲,單日訂單處理能力超過150萬單,推動銷售額飆升20%,還在武漢用上了機器人和無人機配送,還計劃于今年內在各地開設1000家自動化餐廳。

我們的世界正迎來疫情沖擊下的重大革新:自動化、智能化和數字化。中國經濟正在經歷一場由自動化驅動的升級再造,大規模引入機器人技術來降低商業運作中人與人的接觸;在線業務、算法和自動化實現了降本提效及安全保障。雖然這樣的轉變在此次疫情之前就已發端,但疫情確實起到了加速的作用。同時我預測,自動化技術短期內可以用于保證社交安全距離,長期而言將對商業運行機制產生更廣泛、更深層次的影響。這一波后疫情時代的自動化浪潮在中國如火如荼,或許也將于世界各地的商業環境開花結果。

過去人們以為要完成生活中的大事小情,就得與他人面對面互動。經歷疫情隔離后,他們發現其實并非如此。從醫療看護、餐飲、配送、制造、物流、運輸和教育這類藍領屬性的職業,到金融、客服、銷售、人力資源、法律和會計這些白領屬性的工作,很大程度上都可以由軟件和機器人技術來完成。

從歷史角度看,當經濟下行周期恰逢新一波成熟技術的應用落地,往往會掀起自動化的熱潮。企業受到成本壓力后,會覺得有必要削減工作崗位和嘗試新技術。一旦企業成功引進機器人來取代人類員工,老板們就不太可能走回頭路,因為機器人不會生病、不會曠工、不會因為要執行危險任務而要求漲薪。事實上,機器人可以說是疾病大流行期間取代高危崗位的最佳解決方案。難怪美國麻省理工學院的經濟學家大衛·奧特爾 (David Autor) 將新冠疫情稱為“自動化推手”。

中國在發展自動化經濟方面有著得天獨厚的優勢,雖然擁有龐大的勞動力,但在過去20年間,中國的勞動力成本增加了十倍,是越南的兩倍多。作為世界工廠,中國有十足的動力實現智能制造,進而從制造大國晉升為制造強國?,F在中國已經是全球最大、增長最快的工業機器人市場,2018年國內的工業機器人市場規模激增21%,達到54億美元,占全球銷售額的三分之一,各行各業也在積極探索將機器人技術融入制造業的方方面面。

自動化加速的趨勢還輻射到制造業以外的諸多領域。2月疫情在武漢迅速蔓延,規模龐大的火神山醫院在十天內建成,成列的機器人在醫院內奔走,進行消毒和物資運送,機器人的“身影”還出現在各地的學校、醫院和商業建筑中。上海機器人公司擎朗開發的一款無人車結合了激光雷達、計算機視覺、傳感器等技術,可執行無接觸消毒任務。

前陣子我在北京的家中隔離時,網購的包裹和食品都由小區的機器人運送,它裝著輪子,外形敦實,很像《星球大戰》中的R2D2,送貨時先以無線呼叫電梯,自主導航至我家門口,然后撥打我的電話通知開門取件。我取走快遞后,機器人就會回到前臺等候下一個任務。

美團外賣也推出了“無接觸”配送服務,將餐品送至指定的取餐點,外賣小哥和顧客無需互動便可完成交易,美團還在積極測試無人駕駛送餐車。微信也開發了一個系統,人們可以用手機瀏覽餐廳菜單、點餐和結賬,由人類或機器人將食物送上餐桌。穿梭于店內的機器人服務員可能是為了隔離安全,也可能是為了炒噱頭,但未來它們或許會成為大多數普通餐廳的基礎配置(上流餐廳除外)。

不過短期來看,自動化對白領類型的工作影響更大。雖然流水線這樣基礎的重復性工作容易實現自動化,但多數手工技藝對機器人來說仍舊難以掌握。21世紀的“智能自動化”將有別于20世紀的初級物理自動化,因為如今的機器人需要將機械工程和用于感知和精細動作操控的人工智能技術模塊融為一體。而在疫情期間,白領員工居家上班,他們在線上的一切活動、承擔的所有任務都被轉化成數據,標志著向機器全面接手邁出了一小步。這就是自疫情危機爆發以來,提供“機器人流程自動化”的公司迎來一波銷售熱潮的原因。

作為身在中國的技術投資人,我第一手見證了這些技術在疫情期間落地應用,舉例創新工場投資的追一科技公司開發了一款客服中心自動化軟件。疫情期間,國內一家大型銀行的信用卡部門部署使用了該軟件,每天和客戶的通話量高達35萬,相當于1200名人工客服的工作量,這類對話機器人不僅降低了成本,還提高了客戶滿意度,增加了收入?,F在追一科技已將AI數字員工的落地應用擴大到智能營銷、智能分析、智能培訓、智能助理等諸多場景。

后疫情時代的商業環境新脈絡正在成形,一切可通過自動化降本提效的運營環節都將實現自動化,而自動化過程壓縮人類崗位,不僅僅是為了利潤和績效,更是為了健康和安全。機器人和軟件在疫情發生前便已展現出吸引力,如今這些技術更是有理由成為企業剛需——無論新冠肺炎疫苗是否會研發出來。

雖然一些工作因自動化改變或消亡,但許多新的工作崗位也被創造出來,例如數據中心、5G設備、智能軟件等新的數字化基礎設施,軟件將需要人類員工加以研發部署,而機器人的操作和維修也需要人類技師。同樣,以人為核心的數據收集和標簽分類工作也需要人類參與,以便為人工智能提供“燃料”,助力自動化經濟發展。

許多行業將根據“人類-數字共生”的嶄新模式獲得重塑。以教育領域為例,人工智能可擔任24小時在線的老師和教練,而人類老師則是智慧的導師和激勵者;在醫療領域,人工智能將協助人類醫生,充當精準的、有針對性的診斷引擎,而人類醫生則負責與患者溝通和做出最終的決定。

在向自動化經濟轉型的進程中,政府和民間機構需要攜手努力,共同試驗和樹立最佳模式,幫助勞動者做好準備,并對面臨失業風險的人進行再培訓。中國較早采用自動化技術,而且有望成功從一個貧困的農業經濟體轉型為一個工業強國,說明中國的實踐可以提供寶貴的經驗。

二戰后,美國的商業慣例成為了全球標準,世界各地的企業都立志與之看齊,在此次疫情的推動下,中國將加快推進自動化、人工智能和機器人技術深入各行各業,同時為其他地區探索未來方向提供可借鑒的思路?!?/p>

The world after covid-19

Kai-Fu Lee on howcovid spurs China's great robotic leap forward

The pandemic is accelarating a shifttowards people-less companiesthat will eventually characterise business everywhere

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 llic colleagues.

This has spilled over to domains beyond manufacturing. When the pandemic was spreading rapidly in Wuhan in February and the massive Huoshenshan Hospital was built in ten days, a fleet of robots was scurrying inside for disinfecting and delivering medical supplies. These machines are used across China in schools, hospitals and commercial buildings. Keenon, a robotics company in Shanghai, has developed an autonomous vehicle to disinfect areas, using a combination of LIDAR, machine vision and sensors.

Recently, when I was in quarantine at home in Beijing, all of my e-commerce packages and food were delivered by a robot in my apartment complex. The item would be placed on as turdy, wheeled creature resembling R2D2. It could wirelessly summon the elevator, navigate autonomously to my door and then call my phone to announce its arrival. I could then take the delivery and the bot would return to reception.

A food-delivery firm, Meituan, has introduced a “zero contact” service, where the meals are delivered to specific drop-off points, but the driver and customer need never interact. The company is testing self-driving delivery vehicles. WeChat, a popular social-media and payment platform, has developed a system for people to use their phone to read a restaurant menu, order a meal and settle the bill, with either a human or a robot delivering the food to the table. Robot servers today are both gimmicks and safety measures, but tomorrow they may be a normal part of table service for most restaurants, save for posh ones.

However, the impact of automation is likely to be higher for white-collar jobs in the short term. Although basic, routine tasks like assembly-line work are easy to automate, much manual labour is hard for robots. “Intelligent automation” in the 21st century will be different from the rudimentary physical automation of the 20th century, since today’s robots require drawing together mechanical engineering, AI for perception and fine-motor manipulation. Yet as white-collar employees work from home during the pandemic, everything happens online and all tasks are translated into data, it is a small step to have machines take over completely. Companies offering “robotic process automation” are experiencing a boom in sales since the crisis began.

I’ve seen these trends develop as a technology investor in China—and had a front-row seat during lockdown. Zhuiyi Technology, a company in our portfolio, develops software for call-centre automation. During the pandemic, the credit-card department of a large Chinese bank used the system to call its customers, managing 350,000 calls a day, or the equivalent of 1,200 human customer-service representatives. These conversational bots not only reduce cost, but also improve customer satisfaction and boost revenue. The company has since expanded its range to include AI telemarketers, AI analysts, AI trainers, AI assistants and soon.

We can already see the contours of the post-covid business environment taking shape. Everything that can be cost-effectively automated will be, removing people from the process not just for profit and performance but for health and safety. If robots and software were appealing before the pandemic, the reasons not to adopt the technologies are even thinner now, whether a vaccine against covid-19 is developed or not.

Although automation changes some jobs and decimates others, many new jobs are created too. For example, the new digital infrastructure of data centres, 5G equipment, and software will need human workers, as will the operation and repair of robots. So will human-centric data collection and labelling, as the “fuel” that powers AI and facilitates an automation economy.

Many sectors will be reimagined in the form of human-digital symbiosis. In education, for example, AI will become the tutor and always-on instructor, while the human is the wise mentor and motivator. In healthcare, AI will be the accurate, targeted diagnosis engine that assists the human doctor, who communicates with patients and makes final decisions.

The public and private sectors need to work together on the transition to the automation economy. They must experiment and establish the best practices to prepare the workforce and retrain those at risk of unemployment. China’s early adoption of automation technologies—and its successful transition from an impoverished agrarian economy to an industrial powerhouse—means its experience offers valuable lessons.

After the second world war, American business practices became the global standard to which all companies around the world aspired. Accelerated by the pandemic, China will be the economy that drives automation, AI and robotics deep into businesses and industries, while showing the way for others to follow. ■

Kai-Fu Lee, Ph.D., is the Chairman and CEO of Sinovation Ventures.

The Economist Newspaper Limited, London 25th June 2020

本文由李開復博士應邀為《經濟學人》撰文,原文:https://www.economist.com/by-invitation/2020/06/25/kai-fu-lee-on-how-covid-spurs-chinas-great-robotic-leap-forward。