How Automation Is Impacting Jobs During the Pandemic
No matter what impact automation will have on jobs in the future, it's instructive to look at the effect it is having now during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- By Itamar Ben Hamo
- August 14, 2020
In today's uncertain economic environment, some people argue that companies will accelerate the implementation of automation to meet the challenges of the pandemic. A recent study by Georgia State University predicts this very trend:
In fact, the pandemic may be increasing the speed of the transition toward automation because of social distancing measures and because concerns regarding the spread of the virus have forced the creative use of digital technologies in education, business and medicine, among other industries.
As the pandemic wears on, the age-old debate of whether automation creates jobs or kills them is taking a new twist.
To understand how automation is impacting jobs during the pandemic, we should first look at where this conversation stood before the crisis.
Automation and Jobs
The original debate focused on whether automation creates, changes, or kills jobs -- and there are plenty of competing opinions.
According to Sami Atiya, president of Robotics & Motion, automated technology will create many more jobs than it destroys. MIT's Erik Brynjolfsson and others hold that automation will change the jobs we already have. On the other hand, some, including former U.S. Presidential candidate Andrew Yang, claim that automation harms workers and eliminates jobs.
This is all educated speculation about what might happen with automation. What does the data about past automation efforts actually tell us? According to studies by MIT's Daron Acemoglu and Boston University's Pascual Restrepo, automation has contributed to greater inequality, stagnant wages, and lower productivity since the 1980s. This is closer to the "harms workers" vision.
However, the nature of automation is changing rapidly, and job destruction is not necessarily guaranteed. If we look to past examples, such as the Industrial Revolution, technology did lead to job destruction but ultimately created new jobs in the aggregate.
Also, much of today's automation is designed to eliminate mundane, back-office tasks, not to replace workers altogether. Consider a data engineer using a data management platform to automate a cloud migration. This kind of automation eliminates tons of busy work from her plate and frees her to focus on mission-critical tasks that require her expertise. The situation is unlike earlier forms of automation, where machines entirely replaced auto assembly workers.
Such was the automation debate before the pandemic just a few months ago. Since then, the nature of work has changed dramatically, perhaps forever, causing many people to reassess automation's future.
The Big Catalyst: COVID-19
According to the Georgia State University report mentioned earlier, the pandemic could accelerate automation because of the social constraints of the virus. Stay-at-home orders, social distancing, and the nature of the virus's transmission all make uninfectable automated labor more appealing to employers.
According to the report, some sectors already most in danger from COVID-19 are also at significant risk for automation. Roles that can be automated include 73 percent of food services, 41 percent of entertainment and recreation, and 44 percent of wholesale trade. Sectors less exposed to COVID-19 also have high automation potential, including construction (47 percent), personal care (49 percent), and manufacturing (60 percent).
These sound like worrisome figures, but they don't mean the employers will definitely introduce automation. Large-scale automation is easier said than done. It's not a light switch. A single flick will not create robot waiters. As Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman notes, many industries were "exposed" to automation for much of modern history but never actually experienced significant disruption.
No, what will likely happen (at least at first) are modest automation projects that contribute to overall efficiency. There is already scattershot data confirming this. Automated floor cleaner company Brain Corp says it has seen a 13.8 percent robotic usage increase in the first quarter of this year among retailers in U.S. locations and a 24 percent rise in the second quarter. With offices closed, PayPal has used automated chatbots for a record 65 percent of all customer inquiries.
These preliminary reports are incomplete, but they suggest that automation is indeed increasing during the pandemic, although the mismatch between the dire predictions and reality should be noted.
Safety and Efficiency: What Automation Means to Workers Right Now
Despite all the jobs-destroying rhetoric, automation is actually helping workers stay safe and efficient during the pandemic. Automation is, at its core, about removing human beings from work processes. This creates efficiencies in normal circumstances, but with COVID-19, this erasure of human touchpoints also improves safety.
Automation can spare workers, especially front-liners -- including grocery store staff, nurses, hospital secretaries, and police officers -- from additional human contact. Automatic checkouts, medical imaging based on machine learning, automated intake forms, and AI-based identity detection can all limit human contact and inhibit the virus from spreading.
Even away from the front lines, automation can help businesses reopen with proper safety measures. Consider manufacturing. To maintain social distancing, some manufacturing businesses will employ collaborative robots (cobots) as part of the assembly line. By working side-by-side with humans, cobots can pick, sort, and replenish materials without fear of carrying the virus. Businesses that must operate at 25 to 50 percent capacity can use cobots to get up and running while also enhancing safety.
The efficiencies generated by automation also take on new significance during COVID-19. Imagine a doctor, stuck in her office completing insurance forms. An automated computer vision program could scan this paperwork, extract the data, and generate complete insurance files. This frees the doctor to do what she's best at: treating patients. Automation can also reduce costly human errors. For instance, automating control systems can reduce interpretative medical errors in overpacked hospitals.
A Final Word
In the end, the amount of job disruption could hinge on the virus itself. If a vaccine is ready by year's end, businesses may not rush to automate. If the virus continues to drag on into 2022, automation might become more appealing. For most small businesses, automation will present an unmanageable expense; large enterprises are more likely to be able to invest in this new infrastructure.
Nobody can predict the future with certainty, but we can see what automation means in the here and now. It's true that many jobs have "exposure" to elimination, but one of the big impacts automation has had during the pandemic is making roles safer and more effective. Only time will tell if disruption from automation during the pandemic is significant, but it's by no means guaranteed to be so in the future.