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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
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."
Hayden Field (@haydenfield) is a former reporter at Protocol. She previously covered tech, business and investigative features for Entrepreneur Magazine and completed an AI reporting fellowship with the National Press Foundation. Reach her via firstname.lastname@example.org (ask for Signal) or anonymously via Protocol's SecureDrop. Hayden is originally from Atlanta and lives in New York City.
Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.