Technological progress isn’t necessarily a slow, steady climb. It happens in bursts, with quieter periods of behind-the-scenes progress and early adoption followed by a quick adoption of a way of doing. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, there is some evidence that automation adoption to keep businesses operating in unusual times may be one of those bursts.
The coronavirus pandemic has created business circumstances that require creative solutions, and some of those solutions have come via automation. In Japan, for example, a factory relied on robotics to pivot to produce personal protective equipment while keeping workers safely distanced.
As factories and other businesses around the world face similar decisions, their choices could speed up an ongoing enterprise transition as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) technology become more advanced and increasingly applied to automation — for example, in robotics or software programs.
“This is changing the way business is being conducted,” said Bruce Orcutt, vice president of marketing at ABBYY, a digital intelligence company. The solutions needed to continue business right now are speeding up digital transitions in a variety of fields, Orcutt said.
This shift may even continue in a time of reduced business revenues and spending cuts. An index of leading indicators for IT spending launched by IDC in mid-April supports forecasted decreases in overall tech spending for 2020. However, it also points to a few areas where investment could increase in the short term, including AI, which makes many automation technologies possible.
Spending in a few AI software areas will actually increase, IDC found. Those areas include customer-service agents, digital assistants, adaptive learning software, diagnostic treatment systems and pharmaceutical R&D tools.
COVID-19 Driving Automation
The ways different sectors are embracing automation adoption are many and varied. AMP Robotics is seeing an increase in orders for its robots that use AI to sift through recycled material, the New York Times reported, as many cities have paused recycling services because of concerns for the health of workers.
The recycling industry is hardly the only one seeing the benefits of automation right now. Cities that had not yet adopted automated garbage collection now have an additional incentive to do so. Grocery stores are using autonomous floor-cleaning bots, and software robots are sending out test result notifications for clinics and hospitals. Companies of all kinds are relying more on chatbots to answer customer queries.
Even industries that are more cautious or heavily regulated are looking to automated solutions, Orcutt said. He said he’s seeing less pushback regarding automation adoption than he expected, adding that acting early will be an advantage, given how fluid and potentially long-lasting the situation is.
The technology that drives automation is also becoming both more advanced and more accessible. The cost of robots is dropping, according to the International Federation of Robotics, and countries such as South Korea and China are increasingly embracing them.
Anxiety About Costs and Jobs
What is still unknown is how much this sped-up pace of automation will increase the fear many workers have that automation will affect their livelihoods. The anxiety around that shift seems likely to increase when many workers have already lost income, and it will continue to do so during the post-pandemic recovery period.
Concerns about the effects of these shifts on the post-pandemic labor market are understandable. Many companies are struggling financially because of lost revenue and/or the increased costs associated with adjusting their operations; those struggles seem likely to last for some time. If automation allows some companies to reduce costs by reducing their human workforce, they may make that decision.
Although our current situation is unique, there is some precedent we can look to. According to research from the University of British Columbia, in the three recessions over the past 30 years, 88% of job losses were in automatable occupations. Another study that looked at job postings posted online both before and after the Great Recession showed that workers who performed routine tasks were replaced with both automation and more skilled workers.
Unfortunately, those most likely to be negatively affected by automation fall into many of the same demographic groups enduring a larger proportion of COVID-19 job losses, or of the disease itself. According to a 2019 assessment of automation trends by the Brookings Institute, low-income workers, the young and people of color are the most vulnerable.
Any shift in the labor market that comes via a surge in automation will lead to the creation of new jobs or additional jobs in existing fields. But for some workers, it will be difficult to access the training or experience required for those jobs, especially after weathering the economic impact of the pandemic.
Some workers may come to realize the benefits of having more repetitive tasks taken off their plates thanks to automation. It’s not clear if the solutions that arise during the pandemic will stay exactly as they are when the risk has passed, but one way or another they seem likely to affect the expansion of automation across a variety of industries.
Automation has the potential to improve job satisfaction and make workers smarter and more effective instead of replacing them, Orcutt said. Even if automation changes the workplace and moves some tasks away from humans, businesses still need employees to operate successfully.
“Human interactivity is important for the success of any business,” he said.