People

COVID-19 will herald an automation boom

The pandemic has sent millions home and out of work. Some of those jobs will be given to robots.

A man pushing a UV-C machine

In South Africa, automatic UV-C machines are already being used to disinfect hospital rooms. In the near future, machines like this could be mounted on robots.

Photo: Michelle Spatari/AFP via Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic has pushed the world into uncharted territory — and in some industries, that's leading to an automation boom.

More than 6.6 million people filed for unemployment in the U.S. last week. Experts estimate 10 million are out of work. Already, automation is filling some of the gaps. But when the dust settles, will robots have replaced those jobs for good? The answer is complicated and differs by industry, but one thing is clear: Automation trends that were already on the horizon will happen faster now.

"Crisis can be sort of a catalyst or can speed up changes that are on the way — it almost can serve as an accelerant," said Arun Sundararajan, an NYU Stern School of Business professor researching how digital technologies transform society. He believes a new tech paradigm will emerge after the pandemic recedes.

The crisis isn't just accelerating the transition to automation: According to experts, it'll also boost investments powering that change. "There's a lay view that automation might slow because the technology is expensive and firms would be hesitant to make capital investments in a crisis," Mark Muro, a senior fellow and policy director who researches automation at the Brookings Institution, told Protocol. That's wrong. "Economic literature over the last decade shows that these investments are made especially during a crisis."

Protocol spoke with leaders in five different industries where automation is most in demand and found that the coronavirus crisis is already radically changing just about everything.

Retail

From shops to restaurants, retail has been hit hard and fast by this pandemic. Both Sundararajan and Muro agree that technology will fill some of these positions in the future. "If the epidemic intensifies, there's an opportunity there for companies that make retail technologies that automate what would otherwise be in-person human interaction," Sundararajan said.

Muro says this will just be a sudden uptick in trends that were already happening. "Look for accelerated installation of kiosk ordering systems that can easily be layered on — it's an obvious move in the era of social distancing — and they were an obvious move when the economy was going well," Muro said. "So I think you might see a lot more there. Same with basic automation of checkout functions."

Other retail sectors, like grocery and delivery, have become essential to keeping the country running during the pandemic. But jobs in both are traditionally very labor-intensive: loading trucks, stocking shelves, making deliveries.

"As the dust starts to settle … I think more retailers will wake up to the need of having greater automation across their business," said Bradley Bogolea, the founder of Simbe Robotics, which produces the inventory-tracking robot Tally. "In this world of unprecedented demand in grocery, this type of technology can help to benefit the retailers."

Jobs lost in the retail industry are not likely to be replaced by automation overnight when the economy comes back online, Bogolea said. "Just a short while ago, unemployment was at all-time lows, and grocery stores in some regions of the country were actually struggling to get talent," he said. "Given that folks may be freed up from other industries like transportation or hospitality, I think the [grocery] retailers will have a greater pool to work with."

Roboticists often refer to repetitive tasks as "dull, dirty and dangerous" jobs, and even after some degree of normalcy returns, automation will play the greatest role in tasks that few want to do. "You would much rather have your human resources on restocking, heightened customer service, checkouts, and making sure people are finding what they're looking for," Bogolea said.

Logistics and manufacturing

Eventually, experts agree, this crisis will catalyze more investment in automating the supply chain. But some of that work can't happen amid the crisis. "Long term, the future got brighter for us; short term, it's a challenge," said Scott Gravelle, CEO and CTO of Attabotics, a supply chain automation startup that aims to popularize retrieval robots at micro-fulfillment centers across the country. Those challenges include having to demonstrate their products virtually rather than in person, as well as waiting out their clients' and investors' financial uncertainty.

"Venture capital conversations right now have kind of dried up and gone quiet. So that's one problem: Everyone thinks it's a great idea — in the future," he said. "There's a bit of paralysis out there right now."

Carl Vause, the founder of logistics company Soft Robotics, is having a similar experience. "Everyone's in balance-sheet protection mode," he said. "I don't think anyone thought this was going to go as seriously as quickly as it did."

Companies whose workflow was largely virtual already are having an easier time bringing on new clients. Take Fetch Robotics, a supply chain automation startup deploying autonomous mobile robots, or AMRs, for warehouses. The company onboards clients virtually, then ships AMRs and sets them up over Skype. Fetch has seen about 63% more inbound requests this month than it did in February.

"The thing that we're hearing from customers is many of their budgets have been frozen except for budgets for automation," CEO Melonee Wise said. "We've been fielding a lot of inbound from new customers around, 'How can robots enable us to continue manufacturing while keeping social distancing?'" Instead of a person pushing a cart across a warehouse facility to another workstation, for example, a robot could be tasked with the job to avoid potential cross-contamination. Fetch has also been contacted about providing relief from employee headcount shortages due to COVID-19 safety restrictions or illness.

In Attabotics' case, there's an upside, too: The company has recently received inquiries from entirely new kinds of retailers. Rather than brick-and-mortar stores, for example, they're hearing from network television shopping channels.

And from the sheer number of consumers who are now relying on online grocery ordering, and have transitioned onto new ecommerce platforms, this likely marks a permanent shift in consumer behavior.

"One of the fallouts of the crisis is going to be the realization of the risks of the global supply chain," Sundararajan said. "When you have a disruption [of this kind], the risk versus cost calculations are going to look very different moving ahead. It's not just the low probability risk of a pandemic, it's: 'If companies significantly shut down the flow of goods across borders, what does that do to my business?'"

Vause suspects that coronavirus will lead to an existential shift in the way products are manufactured and shipped around the world, with the processes moving closer to home, but that will only be possible with increased automation.

"It's kind of what happened to the banking system post-9/11. Their IT systems weren't prepared for that type of disruption. The way we moved the money around wasn't prepared for that type of disruption. And what you saw is those companies really focus on making sure that they had contingency plans in place," Vause said. "I think you're going to see something similar from the supply chain professionals coming out of this crisis."

Adding automation to operations will not only make them more resilient to disruption, but can also cut costs, notes Rajan Kohli, global head of Wipro Digital, one of the world's largest digital transformation firms. He said the company's clients are realizing that the ensuing economic downturn will likely mean they need to turn to software automation to cut costs.

"They are fundamentally looking at how they change the operating model of IT; that's where you expect huge automation," Kohli said. "If you're going to talk 5-to-10% savings, there are many ways to do it, but if you want a 40 to 50% reduction, then you have to really reimagine the process."

Wipro touts the fact that it has 7,500 employees that are bots — essentially pieces of software that allow workers to complete "higher-order" tasks — and Kohli joked that after India's prime minister Modi issued a lockdown on the country, they're the only ones still working at Wipro's offices.

Health care

Robots, which are primed for both precision and not spreading germs, are a natural fit for many roles in health care. Aethon's TUG autonomous mobile robot, for example, is used by more than 140 hospitals to perform tasks like securely delivering medications, transporting linens and meals, and disposing of trash and biohazardous waste. Since the onset of COVID-19, Aethon has seen a surge in demand, according to CEO Peter Seiff.

But the company's ability to expand to new health care settings is largely delayed until after the crisis peaks. "Having new interactions with potential customers has obviously been difficult, but our existing customers are finding that the technologies that we offer, the automation we offer, [are] coming in very handy in this situation."

Aethon's bots are able to service quarantine areas, pick up trash and bring medications to patients — all tasks that don't need to be performed by someone potentially carrying (or at risk of) infection. "The robot is essentially acting as a piece of PPE by not having people come into close contact with each other," Seiff said.

One area ripe for automation is long-term care. Aethon hadn't focused on it before, but Seiff says the company has seen a spike in inquiries due to social-distancing guidelines and is considering it for the future. Health care administrators have also inquired about using Aethon's bots to carry UV-C light disinfection equipment. Companies like Xenex make robotic UV-C light disinfectors, but even these have to be pushed from room to room by humans.

Sanitizing medical facilities is one area in which automation can be especially helpful, and though there are companies already doing it, demand is rising. This could be a good opportunity for a company like Brain Corp, which builds the BrainOS robot operating system used in things like the Whiz cleaning robots. Health care would be a pivot for Whiz robots, which are primarily deployed in commercial spaces such as offices and stores.

Cleaning hospitals is "obviously a target market that could really benefit from robotics," said Phil Duffy, vice president of product management and marketing at Brain Corp. In the past, conversations have focused on the value of robotics in the space and whether the system will fit with the current technology stacks they have running — "fairly simple things," Duffy said. "With this scenario, it's a much more open conversation to talk about the various different problems they are having."

Delivery

Demand is rising for robots to help deliver everything from groceries to medicine. Government agencies like FEMA are interested in how drone deliveries could help during this crisis, for example, according to Matt Sweeney, the founder of drone delivery company Flirtey. The company's technology can complete mobile delivery orders without anyone needing to touch the drone.

"We've also had multiple organizations, including hospitals, reach out to us asking if they can use our technology to deliver medicine, food, water and test kits to people who are either in self-isolation or are known to be infected and in quarantine," Sweeney said.

The FAA has been hesitant to roll out autonomous drone flights at scale in the U.S., but Sweeney believes that now is the time to prepare infrastructure that could help with another lockdown — especially since some health experts are starting to warn of a second wave of coronavirus cases, much like what happened with the 1918 influenza epidemic.

"I think that this is a catalyst for governments all around the world to prioritize regulatory approval for technologies that enable automated and contactless delivery like drone delivery," Sweeney said.

Flirtey isn't alone. Starship Technologies, the ground-based autonomous delivery company, said that it's using similar selling points as more potential customers are stuck home and needing food. "Our robots provide contactless deliveries," Henry Harris-Burland, Starship's vice president of marketing, said over email. "We are working as quickly as possible to expand our robot delivery service so we can help more people, and we've had grocery stores, restaurants and other delivery companies get in touch."

Harris-Burland added that Starship has seen "high demand for groceries" and that the company is planning to expand into new areas in the U.S. and U.K. "very soon."

Sundararajan said he expects robot deliveries like Flirtey's and Starship's to rise dramatically in the near future. "People today will be much happier," he said, "pulling their groceries out of an autonomous vehicle than receiving them from another person."


Get in touch with us: Share information securely with Protocol via encrypted Signal or WhatsApp message, at 415-214-4715 or through our anonymous SecureDrop.


Tech modernization efforts, however valuable they may be, have often in the past gotten caught in what McKinsey refers to as "pilot purgatory": when companies have engaged in new projects but haven't necessarily seen benefits yet. Muro said his team's research leads him to believe that efforts will become more concerted post-pandemic — and that although almost no industry is safe from some level of automation, accomodation, food service and manufacturing are likely the most susceptible.

"I think that this is a shock that is going to unleash a lot of rapid response," Muro said. "The robots are ready now, and the technology is more available as a turnkey solution for more types of industries than ever."

Climate

The minerals we need to save the planet are getting way too expensive

Supply chain problems and rising demand have sent prices spiraling upward for the minerals and metals essential for the clean energy transition.

Critical mineral prices have exploded over the past year.

Photo: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The newest source of the alarm bells echoing throughout the renewables industry? Spiking critical mineral and metal prices.

According to a new report from the International Energy Agency, a maelstrom of rising demand and tattered supply chains have caused prices for the materials needed for clean energy technologies to soar in the last year. And this increase has only accelerated since 2022 began.

Keep Reading Show less
Lisa Martine Jenkins

Lisa Martine Jenkins is a senior reporter at Protocol covering climate. Lisa previously wrote for Morning Consult, Chemical Watch and the Associated Press. Lisa is currently based in Brooklyn, and is originally from the Bay Area. Find her on Twitter ( @l_m_j_) or reach out via email (ljenkins@protocol.com).

Sponsored Content

Why the digital transformation of industries is creating a more sustainable future

Qualcomm’s chief sustainability officer Angela Baker on how companies can view going “digital” as a way not only toward growth, as laid out in a recent report, but also toward establishing and meeting environmental, social and governance goals.

Three letters dominate business practice at present: ESG, or environmental, social and governance goals. The number of mentions of the environment in financial earnings has doubled in the last five years, according to GlobalData: 600,000 companies mentioned the term in their annual or quarterly results last year.

But meeting those ESG goals can be a challenge — one that businesses can’t and shouldn’t take lightly. Ahead of an exclusive fireside chat at Davos, Angela Baker, chief sustainability officer at Qualcomm, sat down with Protocol to speak about how best to achieve those targets and how Qualcomm thinks about its own sustainability strategy, net zero commitment, other ESG targets and more.

Keep Reading Show less
Chris Stokel-Walker

Chris Stokel-Walker is a freelance technology and culture journalist and author of "YouTubers: How YouTube Shook Up TV and Created a New Generation of Stars." His work has been published in The New York Times, The Guardian and Wired.

Enterprise

The 911 system is outdated. Updating it to the cloud is risky.

Unlike tech companies, emergency services departments can’t afford to make mistakes when migrating to the cloud. Integrating new software in an industry where there’s no margin for error is risky, and sometimes deadly.

In an industry where seconds can mean the difference between life and death, many public safety departments are hesitant to take risks on new cloud-based technologies.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Dialing 911 could be the most important phone call you will ever make. But what happens when the software that’s supposed to deliver that call fails you? It may seem simple, but the technology behind a call for help is complicated, and when it fails, deadly.

The infrastructure supporting emergency contact centers is one of the most critical assets for any city, town or local government. But just as the pandemic exposed the creaky tech infrastructure that runs local governments, in many cases the technology in those call centers is outdated and hasn’t been touched for decades.

Keep Reading Show less
Aisha Counts

Aisha Counts (@aishacounts) is a reporter at Protocol covering enterprise software. Formerly, she was a management consultant for EY. She's based in Los Angeles and can be reached at acounts@protocol.com.

Entertainment

'The Wilds' is a must-watch guilty pleasure and more weekend recs

Don’t know what to do this weekend? We’ve got you covered.

Our favorite things this week.

Illustration: Protocol

The East Coast is getting a little preview of summer this weekend. If you want to stay indoors and beat the heat, we have a few suggestions this week to keep you entertained, like a new season of Amazon Prime’s guilty-pleasure show, “The Wilds,” a new game from Horizon Worlds that’s fun for everyone and a sneak peek from Adam Mosseri into what Instagram is thinking about Web3.

Keep Reading Show less
Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

Workplace

Work expands to fill the time – but only if you let it

The former Todoist productivity expert drops time-blocking tips, lofi beats playlists for concentrating and other knowledge bombs.

“I do hope the productivity space as a whole is more intentional about pushing narratives that are about life versus just work.”

Photo: Courtesy of Fadeke Adegbuyi

Fadeke Adegbuyi knows how to dole out productivity advice. When she was a marketing manager at Doist, she taught users via blogs and newsletters about how to better organize their lives. Doist, the company behind to-do-list app Todoist and messaging app Twist, has pushed remote and asynchronous work for years. Adegbuyi’s job was to translate these ideas to the masses.

“We were thinking about asynchronous communication from a work point of view, of like: What is most effective for doing ambitious and awesome work, and also, what is most advantageous for living a life that feels balanced?” Adegbuyi said.

Keep Reading Show less
Lizzy Lawrence

Lizzy Lawrence ( @LizzyLaw_) is a reporter at Protocol, covering tools and productivity in the workplace. She's a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied sociology and international studies. She served as editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, her school's independent newspaper. She's based in D.C., and can be reached at llawrence@protocol.com.

Latest Stories
Bulletins