Apr 25, 2020 - Technology

Coronavirus speeds the way for robots in the workplace

Illustration of a robot's arm carrying a briefcase

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Coronavirus appears to be accelerating the adoption of workplace automation — and the trend is likely to stick around after the pandemic.

Why it matters: Adopting robots and AI could keep businesses going during social distancing and reduce the health risk to human workers. But with unemployment already at Great Depression levels, many of the jobs lost to automation might never be regained.

What's happening: Brain Corp, a San Diego-based company that develops software for use in autonomous cleaning robots, reports its customers are employing robots about 13% more than they were in the months before the pandemic.

  • The autonomous cleaners can do basic cleaning tasks "so that workers can use their time to do essential sanitation," says Phil Duffy, vice president of innovation at Brain Corp. "Robots are something a lot of our customers are looking at now, and it's making a big difference."
  • Simbe Robotics produces an autonomous shelf-scanning robot called Tally that can audit inventory at grocery stores through computer vision and machine learning. That's particularly useful for food markets as they struggle to keep products on the shelf during the disruption of the pandemic, says Brad Bogolea, Simbe's CEO.
  • Fetch Robotics employs a cloud platform that allows for the rapid deployment of robots in warehouses and similar facilities. With fewer human workers on the job because of social distancing, essential businesses "need robots to help make up the difference," says Melonee Wise, Fetch's CEO.

The big picture: Past experience suggests the advance of automation happens in sudden surges — and economic downturns are often a trigger.

  • A 2018 study looked at three recessions over the past 30 years and found 88% of the jobs lost were in routine, "automatable" occupations.
  • A 2016 paper examined almost 100 million job posts online before and after the 2008 recession and concluded companies in hard-hit areas were replacing employees performing routine tasks with a mix of technology and more skilled workers.

What to watch: Robots will be particularly attractive to front-line businesses that have to stay open during the pandemic.

"When you have the effect of social distancing and infection, it adds to the rationale for the substitution of machines for humans at point-of-sale positions like a cashier for food service, or in hospitals."
— Mark Muro, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution

Yes, but: Companies in the robotics business say their products are meant to augment human workers, not replace them. But with tens of millions of Americans unemployed, it's impossible not to fear that a surge in automation could make a post-pandemic job recovery even more difficult.

  • Low-income jobs will be particularly vulnerable to automation. As a result, "automation and digital technologies are exacerbating social cleavages and could be a source of unrest for years to come," wrote Carl Benedikt Frey of Oxford's Future of Work program for the Financial Times.

The other side: Some experts believe the immediate threat to jobs from automation during the pandemic is overstated.

  • A January paper noted that in the past, automation rarely replaced entire occupational classes. Instead, robots tended to automate parts of a job, which can lead to a loss of income but not necessarily unemployment.
  • Humans are still far more flexible, mentally and physically, than industrial robots, and their skills are still in demand. Amazon, which hasn't been shy about employing automation where it can, is looking to hire 100,000 human workers in its fulfillment centers and as delivery drivers.

The bottom line: The robots were already coming for jobs, and the pandemic will give employers additional incentive to automate where they can. But for now, the far bigger threat to jobs is the brute fact of an economic depression.

Go deeper: Coronavirus-related recession could spike automation

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