A woman sews a cloth in a local garment shop in Dhaka K M Asad/Getty Images

To Resist the Robots, Invest in People

Widespread automation has yet to come to Asia's developing economies; but it will soon enough, and governments would do well to start preparing their workforces now. In addition to appropriate tax and labor-market policies, publicly provisioned vocational and skills-training programs will play a crucial role.

MANILA – A knitting factory in Bangladesh brings together the past, present, and future. On one floor, workers knit by hand. On another, people and machines do the work together. And on a third floor, there are only robots.

This building might seem like an anachronism, given the accepted wisdom that robots will replace humans in textiles and many other industries. But it is actually a savvy response to how the Fourth Industrial Revolution will likely play out in Asia. As is the case elsewhere, technological advances are rapidly transforming industries and economies, by blurring the boundaries between the physical, digital, and biological worlds.

And yet much of Asia isn’t ready for robots, for reasons that go beyond fears of mass unemployment. In 2014, China had just 11 robots per 10,000 employees in non-automotive industries, and just 213 per 10,000 employees on automotive assembly lines. That is hundreds fewer than in Japan, the United States, or Germany.