Has COVID-19 Catalyzed an Automation Revolution?

February 8, 2021 - 7 minutes read

Robots are getting better at their jobs, and robotics engineers are building more life-like robots than ever. The technology is a tool in the larger field of automation, which, like all industries, was largely affected by COVID-19. As stay-at-home orders were enacted and employees became infected, companies that had automation in place were much better equipped to ride out the pandemic compared to competitors that relied on human labor.

Siddhartha Srinivasa, a computer science professor at the University of Washington and director of robotics artificial intelligence (AI) at Amazon, said he wants to make robots unsexy again. For example, he said, we don’t consider our dishwashers to be state-of-the-art and sexy even though they’re incredibly complex mechanical robots. According to Srinivasa, “When something becomes unsexy, it means that it works so well that you don’t have to think about it. … I want to get robots to that stage of reliability.” Although we haven’t reached that stage yet, Srinivasa is one of many AI developers around the world who want to drastically improve the perception of automation and robotics.

The Impact of the Pandemic

The economic, business, industrial, and consumer effects of the pandemic cannot be understated. Many businesses scrambled to implement automation during the start of the pandemic to prevent their employees from taking on higher infection risk. Most of them were targeting work carried out by humans that were necessary to business operations so that the company could continue business as usual.

According to research by Digital Trends, some of the industries that significantly increased their automation efforts include grocery stores, meatpacking facilities, and manufacturing, among others. In June 2020, 44% of corporate financial officers that were surveyed said their company was considering adding more automation into their workflows to combat the negative effects of the pandemic. But that number is low as MIT economist David Autor describes the effect of COVID-19 on the economy as one “that forces automation.”

Autor says that there has been no reduction in demand for automation as companies hurry to automate in sectors that are facing a shortage of workers. One sector that has faced the worst economic downturn is hospitality. As consumers completely halt their travel plans and cancel reservations without booking another, the hospitality industry saw demand disappear virtually overnight.

In sectors like agriculture and distribution, automation is boosting revenues while keeping labor costs down. Specifically, in the distribution industry, e-commerce has changed the landscape of shipping, inventory tracking, and package receiving. More and more warehouses are becoming automated, which is increasing productivity and efficiency while keeping employees safe.

China’s Role

Of all of the countries in the world, China is in the best position to lead the world into increased automation. Much of the world’s manufacturing is done in China with Chinese labor, and even though the country has an enormous workforce, labor costs have risen by 10 times in the past two decades. Being the largest and fastest-growing global market for industrial robotics, China has the biggest incentive to automate factories and manufacturing companies within and outside of the mainland.

China’s industrial robotics market share increased to $5.4 billion in 2019, representing 33% of global sales. However, like most of the world, China’s workforce is getting older and reaching retirement age but the country is facing major issues finding young people to replace the retired population with. For maximum short-term benefit, automation is needed to stabilize the global economy.

In some areas, like restaurant automation, China is ahead of the rest of the world. In early 2020, a UBS Group AG survey found that 17% of consumers in the U.S. ordered meals through their phone once a week or more while 64% of respondents based in China ordered meals once a week or more using their mobile device. Although a mobile app may not be robotic automation, experts believe that robot waiters and chefs aren’t too far away.

The Next Step for Robots

Robots have slowly made their way into the mainstream, but they have mostly operated in the way of fun (looking at you, Boston Robotics), delivery, and factory automation. During the pandemic, we saw the rise of robots in hospitals, airports, and offices that continuously clean and deliver important medications as needed. In fact, there have been over 66 different kinds of these “social” robots, say researchers from Pompeu Fabra University.

The robot revolution that everyone imagines — the one where automation, robotics, machine learning development, and AI all seamlessly come together to transform nearly every industry — hasn’t happened yet. There’s nothing that points to a robot revolution overnight, but it seems like we may reach the revolution slowly and one step at a time. When 5G is more widely available, automation will become accelerated, allowing robotics to grow more rapidly.

People-Facing Robots

Unfortunately, consumer-facing robots are still met with hesitation, fear, admiration, and rejection, all at the same time. For example, Walmart ended its contract with San Francisco robotics development firm Bossa Nova. The end of the contract meant that 1,000 inventory robots were pulled from Walmart stores because the company was worried about how customers would react to the six-foot scanning robots.

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Experts aren’t so sure that the World Economic Forum’s forecast of almost 50% of tasks worldwide being handled by machines by 2025 is actually feasible or realistic. But it is still possible.

Just The Start of It All

Even with the increased automation efforts caused by the pandemic, it seems unlikely that we’ll see robots appear in more aspects of our lives within a short amount of time. It will happen one day, but it will take a lot of time and gradual acceptance of robots before people adapt to them psychologically and practically. Until then, robots will still be seen as sleek and sexy.

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