A Testing Lab for Russian Robots Revs Up in Uruguay

Why you should care

From schools and colleges to the workplace, Uruguay is preparing to lead South America in robotics.

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Caroline Cosse had a message for Russian ears. So the Uruguayan industries minister traveled to Moscow for the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum last year and made an offer: her country, as a testing lab, for Vladimir Putin’s robotic and additive manufacturing ambitions. “Uruguay can be a very good place,” she told reporters, pitching it as a South American haven for Russian companies looking to build research or manufacturing sites near the larger Brazil or Argentina markets.

She wasn’t blowing hot air. Uruguay may be better known for its world-leading 3.6 cattle for every one person and a “one big farm” nickname. But the country is increasingly earning a reputation for its prowess in both software and robotics. The country has a workforce that is surprisingly agile, highly educated and generationally diverse, says KPMG Brazil managing partner Ruben Gallago, the lead on shared services, outsourcing and automation. Uruguay isn’t just relying on that legacy, though. At the collegiate level, the Universidad de La Republic, the country’s oldest and largest university, has created a project to create a “simple and economic platform” to help engineering students and teachers internalize the basic ideas of programming. The country is also counting on its “one laptop per child” policy that since 2009 has given every elementary school student a computer with internet access — an effort to equip the next generation with even greater mathematical and technical skills.

If Uruguay manages to have qualified people, it will have a future in the region.

Ruben Gallago, KPMG Brazil managing partner

Groups like the Italy-based nonprofit Scuola di Robotica are helping organize a “robotics week” in Montevideo. Uruguay has itself held four annual Olympics for Robotics, Programming and Videogames, the most recent in November. At these events, hundreds of preteens and high schoolers work on socially impactful projects such as how to create sustainable schools: One squad used engineering techniques to design hobbit-like homes that conserve energy with natural insulation. That success in molding its education system is also emerging as Uruguay’s greatest strength, say experts.

In the words of Gallago: “If Uruguay manages to have qualified people, it will have a future in the region.”

Uruguay’s shift toward tech coincides with what some experts call the “fourth industrial revolution.” Similar to the way water and steam power fueled the mechanical loom in 1784, electrical energy led to the assembly line in 1870. The internet then led to programmable controllers in 1969, and integrated automation could make factory processes faster and more efficient in industry-shattering ways. According to a report by SCOTT Automation, 1.8 million robots are already working in factories across the globe. Analysts estimate the market for robotic solutions to be in the tens of billions. Right now, Uruguay does have some catching up to do — for instance, it didn’t make the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) list of top 21 countries in terms of robot density average (that is, robot units per 10,000 employees). But with its education geared toward making robotics a success, the country that has already proven to be ahead of the curve on issues like marijuana, education and democracy could soon be leading the charge on making Wall-E and iRobot a reality in South America too.

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Girls look at a drone during an activity on the sidelines of the International Girls in Information and Communications Technology Day at the National Youth Institute in Montevideo, April 28, 2016.

Source Nicolas Celaya/Xinhua/Alamy

In some ways, Uruguay’s regional success may be a case of a technological big fish in a little pond. Asia is the giant looming over the world, with the Republic of Korea, Japan and Singapore leading the way in robot density — although China is quickly bounding toward them, experiencing the most dynamic growth from 2013 to 2016 and setting a goal to reach the top 10 by 2020. North America has been strong too, led by the United States at seventh and Canada at 13th worldwide, while Europe is a growing market led by third-ranked Germany and (fifth and sixth) Sweden and Denmark. In comparison, no South American nations made the IFR list, which shows how far nations like Uruguay still have to go.

The transition won’t be easy: Industry has to take care of people amidst disruption or face social consequences. As robots displace the jobs of more labor-focused workers, the government will have to encourage a skills-based workforce. “There is a fear with the use of artificial intelligence, but business units must be transformed, and people’s soft skills developed,” said Jose Bello, the general manager of Prosegur Uruguay, at a conference on competitiveness, technology and innovation in Montevideo last year. It doesn’t help that Uruguay has the oldest population in South America — though relatively young by global standards — with the median age around 35 years old. Whether Uruguay can continue teaching its “old dogs” new tricks will go a long way to determining its success in an industry that isn’t waiting around for anyone. As Gallago says: “There is no time to adapt. This fourth industrial evolution [will] not last 100 years like the previous ones — only 10.”

But Uruguay has things going its way too. It has a stable democracy that has avoided the intense political turmoil neighbors such as Venezuela and Argentina have witnessed. Crucially, it also has experience revamping entire industries on the fly. The idea of reducing its carbon footprint in the mid-aughts seemed daunting, but a decade later, renewable energy from hydropower, solar and wind account for nearly 95 percent of Uruguay’s electricity production. A robot-supplemented workforce may be next.

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