Within the US, we are experiencing an increase in COVID-19 cases and the loss of permanent jobs. While the June employment numbers look very promising (the number of jobs increased by 4.8 million), they hide two important factors. The first is that these numbers came out just before the explosion in cases. The second is that many of these jobs are only part-time, instead of the full-time jobs that existed before the pandemic.
From a policy perspective, we’d like to see businesses accelerate their return to normalcy and we’d like to see unemployment go down. But we are unlikely to see both of these things happen.
Robots are going to help us return to normal business faster, but they are going to contribute to higher unemployment.
In the pandemic, everything digital is growing faster than it was before. Robotic solutions are digital solutions that will grow faster than before. Robots help us avoid close in-person interactions, they can make us more efficient, and they can be better than humans at many things.
Let’s look at some examples.
In the picture above Beijing-based CloudMinds sent their robots to Wuhan, China to help with the pandemic. These robots can clean and disinfect work areas, measure a patient’s temperature, and deliver medicine. Not only are they replacing what a human would normally do, but they can also do it in a way that doesn’t risk getting anyone else infected. They are a safer alternative for both the health care provider and the patient.
Also, robo-advisors can provide medical advisory services. These robo-advisors can greatly reduce the time it takes for healthcare staff to interact with potential patients face-to-face. Patients can get many of their concerns addressed without interacting with a human.
These AI-based advisors also handle the administration of these interactions, freeing up healthcare providers to focus on the most important cases in the healthcare facility.
Humans will interact with potential patients when needed, but humans don’t need to be involved in every part of every transaction.
Imagine you have a manufacturing facility. Should you bring in robots like Canon’s 3D Machine Vision System to help with your manufacturing, instead of relying only on employees?
What happens when a worker gets COVID-19? Not only does the worker need to quarantine, but everyone they’ve recently interacted with should as well. One sick worker could prevent many more workers from showing up at work the next day and greatly reduce your manufacturing capacity.
Robots don’t get sick, and they don’t get their co-workers sick. And they can work almost 24/7, with no overtime.
This fear of the loss of available labor and the lower cost of a robot helping to manufacture a product will speed the acceptance of robots in many manufacturing facilities.
The work in warehouses can sometimes be very demanding and physically challenging for humans. Imagine walking around all day tracking inventory in a warehouse that’s larger than a football field.
In many cases, it may be reasonable for warehouse workers to ask for better working conditions. If management doesn’t address these fears the workers may go on strike.
Not only do robots not get sick, but robots also don’t go on strike.
Fetch Robotics can track inventory in a warehouse daily, helping companies know what is exactly in the warehouse, saving time and money. Even the mere threat of a strike will accelerate management’s investment in robots to do warehouse worker’s jobs.
People working in customer support often have to deal with many mundane, repetitive, boring tasks. Chatbots are becoming better and better at handling lower-level support questions. Bold360 is an AI-powered self-service bot that helps enterprises develop their chatbots.
It turns out that customer support representatives are usually quite happy for a chatbot to handle the mundane questions that come in from customers. It frees them up to work on the more interesting issues.
An additional benefit an AI-based chatbot offers is to assist the customer support representative in solving the more challenging problems. An AI-based chatbot can help them search through thousands of prior customer interactions and other data to come up with suggestions on how to address the more difficult problem.
In this scenario, workers will welcome the bots because they make their jobs better by removing the boring work at the low level and assisting them in handling the more challenging requests.
The restaurant industry is one of the hardest hit by the coronavirus. It usually requires a human to do the work inside the restaurant, and a human to deliver the food. And yet, consumers don’t want human-human interaction.
A company called Miso Robotics has developed a robot called Flippy that can flip burgers all day long for the equivalent of $3 per hour. Other robots have been developed to wash utensils and keep the kitchen and dining room areas clean.
Other companies have developed robots that serve restaurant patrons. If the visitor to any restaurant orders online, has a robot cook their food, and receives their food from a robot, they may never have to interact with a human or have their food touched by a human.
The “last mile” can make up as much as 50% of the cost of delivery. If companies rely on delivery as a key part of their service (e.g. Amazon, UPS, FedEx, Dominos, Walmart, etc.), they are going to find ways to reduce the cost of delivery. Robots are becoming an important way to accomplish this.
While delivery robots work best in limited environments, they will reduce the number of delivery personnel needed by companies who rely on low-cost delivery of goods as part of their offering.
In addition to the benefits of not getting sick and not going on strike, robots can potentially provide other benefits to companies including reduced turnover, no need for benefits (including vacation), and often faster service.
The robots are coming and that’s good for business and consumers, but not good for the workers whose jobs are at stake.
Glenn Gow is a former CEO and has been a board member of four companies. He is a Partner at Clear Ventures and he coaches CEOs. His specialty is working as a board member to help guide companies through technology disruptions, especially AI. Follow him on Twitter or LinkedIn or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.