Axios Future

A robotic hand with the palm facing upward.
May 02, 2020

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.

1 big thing: The next wave of job automation will be virtual

Illustration a nameplate in binary code with the words "customer service"
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.

  • Businesses are already using automated bots to respond to the pandemic, says Michael Heric, the leader of Bain's Automation Center of Excellence and a co-author of the report. That includes processing testing kits and helping with SBA loan applications.

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.

  • UiPath, a leading RPA vendor, is working with a hospital in Dublin to produce software robots capable of rapidly disseminating COVID-19 test results, which the company says can save nurses as much as three hours of work per day.
  • IPsoft has developed an "AI digital colleague" called Amelia that can answer customer service requests online for banks, IT desks and other businesses. More recently, the company has used Amelia to help the AskMD platform screen users online for COVID-19 symptoms.
  • Gloat provides an AI platform that helps HR departments in large companies like Schneider Electric provide career development for employees — a particularly challenging task when most workers are operating remotely.

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.

  • "We need to do this polar shift from the days when business processes were managed by people and assisted by technology to one where business processes are managed by technology and assisted by humans," says Jonathan Crane, chief commercial officer for IPsoft.

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.

  • "There are very serious displacement problems that we should be worried about," says Michael Lotito, co-chair of the Workplace Policy Institute at Littler. "If we don't embrace these issues now, there are opportunities here for social unrest."

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."

  • "This isn't primarily about reducing costs," says Ashim Gupta, the chief financial officer at UiPath. "This is about using robots to handle a surge in volume."

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.

2. There will be jobs in the future

Photo of an unemployment office in Michigan
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.

  • During March, demand for Information Manager/Director and Career Counselor fell by 79% and 70% respectively, for not terribly difficult-to-tell reasons.
  • At the same time, demand for Caregivers/Personal Care Aides and Computer Scientists rose 354% and 337% respectively in March.

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."

  • That will include a mix of high-technology jobs like Alternative Energy Manager and Business Intelligence Architect, as well as high-touch jobs for an aging population, like Home Health Aide (up 348% year-over-year in the first quarter).
  • The forced growth of remote work will likely result in greater geographic distribution of economic opportunity — one small silver lining to COVID-19.

The bottom line: Jobs will return eventually — but they won't be the same ones we lost.

3. Why Congress is lagging on remote voting

Image of the empty hallways outside the U.S. Senate
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.

  • Speaker Nancy Pelosi, by contrast, reversed plans to reconvene the House after Congress' attending physician advised against it. But that means there will be little House members can do.

Other legislatures in the U.S. and globally have gotten around social distancing by experimenting with remote voting.

  • Over 100 Pennsylvania legislators have been working and voting remotely for the past several weeks. According to FiveThirtyEight, it's mostly worked well — at least once legislators upgraded to computers capable of running Zoom.
  • About 280 members of Canada's parliament recently connected via Zoom to question the government on its response to COVID-19. For Canadians, the most noteworthy part was the chance to rate their MP's living rooms.

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.

  • Portman and Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin have proposed a resolution that would allow the Senate majority and minority leaders to permit secure remote voting temporarily during a crisis. Security measures would include identity authentication before voting and verification afterwards, along with encryption.
  • "We need this tool in our toolbox moving forward," Portman told Axios. "Today, we face a pandemic. Tomorrow, there could be a new national crisis, preventing members from convening safely."

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.

4. The ugly future of flying

Illustration of a suitcase in a square of caution tape with a medical mask and gloves draped over it.
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.

  • Expect new procedures for everything from luggage check-in to security clearance and boarding.
  • You might even need to have your blood tested to prove you're in good health.
  • "9/11 changed travel completely," writes airline consultant Shashank Nigam, CEO and founder of SimpliFlying. "The impact of COVID-19 on air travel will be even more far-reaching."

Masks and social distancing are only the beginning. In a new report, "The Rise of Sanitized Travel," SimpliFlying anticipates:

  1. Online check-in: Passengers might need to upload a document to confirm the presence of COVID-19 antibodies before they fly.
  2. Airport curbside: Passengers could be required to arrive at least four hours ahead of their flight and pass through a "disinfection tunnel" or thermal scanner.
  3. Check-in and bag drop: Agents would be behind plexiglass shields, and bags would be disinfected and then "sanitagged."
  4. The pre-flight safety video might include sanitation procedures. In-flight magazines will be removed, seatback pockets emptied, and passengers will likely use their own devices to watch videos. An in-flight janitor might keep lavatories and other high-touch areas disinfected after passenger use.

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5. Worthy of your time

The coronavirus is rewriting our imaginations (Kim Stanley Robinson — The New Yorker)

  • The brilliant sci-fi writer on how the coronavirus shows how rapidly civilization can change.

COVID-19 has blown apart the myth of Silicon Valley innovation (David Rotman — MIT Tech Review)

  • Why our great innovation hub can't make the things we need to beat the pandemic.

Making sense of the future after losing a job you love (Sally Maitlis — Harvard Business Review)

  • With tens of millions of Americans unemployed, this story has honest advice for how to deal with one of the worst things that can happen to anyone.

Let's create an elite scientific body to advise on global catastrophes (Avi Loeb and Dario Gil — Scientific American)

  • I wholeheartedly support this idea and volunteer to serve on the body, or at least come up with a cool name for it.

6. 1 AI thing: Deepfake music

Illustration of robot hand holding a conductor’s baton
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.

  • The algorithms, which were trained on collections of an artist's songs, were able to find patterns in the audio data that roughly correlated to musical style.
  • Those patterns were then used to generate new songs in the artist's style, complete with new lyrics created in collaboration with human OpenAI researchers.
  • Somehow this all resulted in a surprisingly lifelike deepfake Frank Sinatra singing about a "hot tub Christmas."

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.

  • Earlier this week, Jay-Z's entertainment agency Roc Nation filed copyright strikes against YouTube in an effort to take down AI-powered impersonations of the rapper rhyming Shakespeare lines and Billy Joel songs.

The bottom line: As Jay-Z might say, "Everybody wanna be Hov." Including, apparently, the bots.