As pandemic drags on, interest in automation surges

Today, the U.S. exceeded three million COVID-19 cases and 132,000 deaths. In several states, new hotspots have rolled back plans to reopen businesses. The novel coronavirus has — and will continue — to profoundly impact the way we live and work.

For the moment, that includes a shift in the employment status of many Americans. More than 50 million people have filed for unemployment since mid-March. And while many states have made efforts to reopen businesses and return some sense of normality, these moves have led to a spike in cases and may prolong the pandemic and its ongoing economic impact.

Technology has been a lifeline for many, from food delivery to the 3D printing I highlighted last week, which has worked to address a nation suffering from personal protective equipment shortages. Automation and robotics have also been a constant in conversations around tech’s battle against COVID-19.

Robots don’t get sick, tired or emotionally burnt out, and unlike us, they aren’t walking, talking disease vectors. Automation advocates like to point to the “three Ds” of dull, dirty and dangerous jobs that will eventually be replaced by a robotic workforce, but in the age of COVID-19, nearly any essential job qualifies.

The robotic invasion has already begun in earnest. The service, delivery, health care and sanitation industries in particular have all opened a massive gap over the past several months that automation has been more than happy to roll right through. A recent report from The Brookings Institute notes that automation arrives in the workforce in fits and starts — most notably, during times of economic downturn.

“Robots’ infiltration of the workforce doesn’t occur at a steady, gradual pace. Instead, automation happens in bursts, concentrated especially in bad times such as in the wake of economic shocks, when humans become relatively more expensive as firms’ revenues rapidly decline,” the study found. “At these moments, employers shed less-skilled workers and replace them with technology and higher-skilled workers, which increases labor productivity as a recession tapers off.”

That last bit is likely unsurprising for anyone who has followed the economic impact of automation with even passing interest.

As economist Carl Benedikt Frey noted in a recent piece for Financial Times, “High-income jobs are not only harder to automate, they are also more pandemic-proof. Of 483 occupations analysed in a forthcoming report by Citi and the Oxford Martin School, 113 of them — accounting for 52% of the U.S. workforce — could be performed remotely. By contrast, high-income earners are five times more likely to be able to work during the pandemic. While the virus doesn’t discriminate, automation and digital technologies are exacerbating social cleavages and could be a source of unrest for years to come.”

While the long-term impact of these technologies is still largely the realm of speculation, it’s long been clear that jobs regarded as “low-skilled” will be both the first to be displaced by automation and far and away the most disproportionately impacted.

An earlier Brookings report notes that young, largely male workers have the highest potential for job lost by automation. Certain ethnic groups are also significantly more likely to feel the effects of automation-fueled job loss. 

“Hispanic, American Indian and Black workers, for example, face average current-task automation potentials of 47%, 45% and 44% for their jobs, respectively,” according to the study, “figures well above those likely for their white (40%) and Asian (39%) counterparts.”

The decision to automate is always a cost-benefit analysis. For many employers, it’s simply been more cost effective to maintain the status quo of human employees. But a confluence of factors spurred on by the epidemic seem destined to accelerate that adoption for many who have otherwise been reluctant to plunk down the costs to get them beyond that initial hurdle.

The fact that the pandemic lasted this long will likely only further demand for adopting these technologies. “Uncertainty” is the scariest word of all when it comes to both economics and epidemiology, and this moment is nothing if not uncertain. The U.S. in particularly has proven itself not particularly adept in stemming the spread of the virus. For the time being, it seems we will be living with COVID-19 in some form until we have a vaccine — and perhaps even longer, given the current state of public opinion around vaccinations.

Such uncertainty — coupled with the threat of future pandemics — are proving good motivators for the push to automate. Likely those companies who chose to automate as a method for dealing with the coronavirus will not return to the status quo of human workers the moment we’re in the clear.

As MIT’s Sloan Management School notes, “Companies that have adopted robots during the crisis might think that a significant percentage of their human employees are not needed anymore. Consumers who will have spent more time than ever interacting with robots might become accustomed to that type of interaction. When you get used to having food delivered by a robot, you eventually might not even notice the disappearance of a job that was once held by a human. In fact, some people might want to maintain social distancing even when it is not strictly needed anymore.”

All around the world, wary people are waiting patiently for a return to normal. The simple fact is, however, that as with so many other aspects of life, the job market may have no normal to return to.