Welcome to Axios Future, where April showers bring May... something, presumably — I haven't been outside to see.
🚨Axios is hosting a live virtual event on COVID-19's impact on education and the jobs of the future. Join Axios cities correspondent Kim Hart Tuesday, May 5, at 12:30 p.m. ET for a conversation with Teach For America CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and CEO and chairman of Revolution and co-founder of AOL Steve Case.
Today's issue is 1,713 words, a 6 1/2-minute read.
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios
While industrial robots may get more of the attention, the real acceleration in workplace automation will come via software.
Why it matters: Robotic process automation (RPA) allows companies to program computer software to emulate the actions of a human worker online. That potentially opens up a much larger portion of the economy to automation at a moment when the pandemic has already forced businesses to go remote.
A recent survey from Bain & Company of nearly 800 executives worldwide estimated that the number of companies scaling up such automation technologies is set to double over the next two years — and that COVID-19 will almost certainly accelerate that timeline.
Details: Physical robots are certainly getting a boost as companies respond both to the pandemic and the economic downturn, as I wrote in Future last week. But software agents that can automate business processes — which, somewhat confusingly, are also referred to as "robots" — can be introduced more rapidly to a much wider range of companies as more of the economy moves online.
What they're saying: RPA was already on the rise before COVID-19 hit, thanks to continually improving machine learning technology. But the unique circumstances of the pandemic will see it infiltrating the economy even faster.
The catch: While industrial robots have and will continue to displace some human workers in manufacturing and other physical occupations, more than three-quarters of the U.S. economy consists of the services sector. That means vastly more jobs are at least somewhat at risk from the spread of this brand of automation.
Yes, but: Companies in the space insist that software robots are less about outright replacing human employees than taking low-level, repetitive work off their hands. The result is what some experts call a "hybrid workforce."
The bottom line: The pandemic has shown that many of us can do our jobs remotely because at the end of the day, we're primarily working on a computer. Don't be surprised if more and more of that work is done by the computer itself.
An unemployment office in Michigan. Photo: Jeff Kowalsky / AFP
A new report identifies the occupations that will keep growing, even during a pandemic and an economic downturn.
The big picture: While 30 million Americans have filed for unemployment over the past six weeks, the job-destroying effects of the pandemic haven't been evenly distributed.
Each quarter, the consulting company Cognizant puts out its Jobs of the Future Index, which aims to identify which digitally enabled industries and job markets are best positioned to grow in the years ahead. In its recently published 2020 Q1 report, Cognizant caught the earliest effects of the pandemic.
What they're saying: "The now of work is being shredded before our eyes," says Robert Brown, associate vice president for Cognizant's Center for the Future of Work. "What that means is that the future of work we've framed in the index is coming to pass faster than we realized."
The bottom line: Jobs will return eventually — but they won't be the same ones we lost.
Empty hallways outside the U.S. Senate. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Legislatures around the world have been experimenting with remote deliberation during the pandemic, but Congress still insists on in-person voting.
Why it matters: With social distancing rules in place, any physical gathering of a legislative body for voting almost certainly presents a health threat. Unless secure remote voting is permitted, Congress must either largely cease its work — or endanger its members.
What's happening: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced on Thursday that he would be reconvening the Senate in person starting Monday — even though the Capitol physician doesn't have enough COVID-19 tests for all senators, as my Axios colleagues reported.
Other legislatures in the U.S. and globally have gotten around social distancing by experimenting with remote voting.
What they're saying: Republican Sen. Rob Portman has been a leading voice for remote voting. On Thursday he convened what is believed to be the Senate's first virtual roundtable — appropriately enough, on the subject of remote voting.
The bottom line: If the rest of America can get over its Zoom fatigue, Congress can too — and get back to the work of the American people.
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios
When you're ready to fly again, pack your patience with your face mask: everything will take longer, Axios transportation expert Joann Muller writes.
Masks and social distancing are only the beginning. In a new report, "The Rise of Sanitized Travel," SimpliFlying anticipates:
The coronavirus is rewriting our imaginations (Kim Stanley Robinson — The New Yorker)
COVID-19 has blown apart the myth of Silicon Valley innovation (David Rotman — MIT Tech Review)
Making sense of the future after losing a job you love (Sally Maitlis — Harvard Business Review)
Let's create an elite scientific body to advise on global catastrophes (Avi Loeb and Dario Gil — Scientific American)
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios
An AI company developed a system that can make original compositions in the style of famous musicians.
Why it matters: Given the middling quality of the result, no one is going to be requesting a deepfake Elvis Presley at their next party. But the achievement is still remarkable — and may be the next step to creating AI musicians we actually want to listen to.
The product, called Jukebox, was released this week by Silicon Valley-based OpenAI.
What's next: OpenAI's Jukebox won't be putting any musicians out of work. But the project does raise interesting questions about copyright and originality in the age of AI.
The bottom line: As Jay-Z might say, "Everybody wanna be Hov." Including, apparently, the bots.