The concept of fully automated services such as retail stores seemed like a well-written science fiction movie. Today, automation is not a dream but a reality. Before the coronavirus outbreak, people were worried that more automation would negatively impact the workforce, causing job losses to human workers. People were worried about the replacement of an essential workforce, such as cleaners with robots. A Mckinsey report in 2017 predicted that robots would displace from 400 to 800 million people globally by 2030.
Today, we wonder whether an automated workforce could have cushioned us from the damage to the economy caused by Covid-19. If we had contactless purchasing options at the stores, could they have cushioned human cashiers? The evidence is overwhelming that indeed technology protects us in more ways than one.
Support of Labor Forces
In January 2020, the World Economic Forum’s report indicated in a statement that approximately 6.1 million opportunities in the world would be created in 2020 and 2022 from professions in the automation industry and other technological applications. Machines have helped humans in performing their jobs. Bomb disposal robots in the army work as remote presences in place of soldiers faced with the task of disabling suspicious devices.
Some industries need a human touch and need quick decision-making reflexes that are a matter of life and death. Medicine is one such industry that is hard to automate but gives room for technology to carry out simple chores like taking temperatures, lifting heavy patients, dispensing drugs, and cleaning. In eldercare, robots are useful in keeping the elderly company or helping them carry out their daily chores.
Public safety and public works departments are making use of robots outside the hospital to perform spraying tasks in public places. Drones are in use in the provision of thermal imagery to identify any Covid-19 infected person and enforcing social distancing and quarantines. Robots are broadcasting public service messages on the covid-19 virus and the significance of social distancing.
Helping Workers Instead of Replacing Them
All disasters have different dynamics, and using robots during the Covid-19 crisis allows us to learn critical lessons in the last 20 years:
Robots are not human replacement
In a disaster, a robot can never replace humans. They perform tasks that humans either cannot do at all and if they can, it cannot be done safely. The robots perform tasks that leave human responders free to handle other things. An example is robots used in hospitals that are taking care of Covid-19 patients. These robots do not take over the roles of health care workers and are teleoperated, which allows the health workers to use their expertise and show compassion to the sick.
You cannot stock robots.
The extensive use of robots in the Covid-19 is an indication that more robots are needed in the health care industry, just like ventilators and PPE (Personal Protective Equipment). Despite all these, storing specialized robots does not make economic sense.
Robots in the future
Hopefully, this pandemic will push for the adoption of the robots we have now and their adaptation to new environments, also lead to the creation of new ones such as automation of laboratory, and supply chain. Automation of the excruciatingly slow Covid-9 testing process would remove the delays being faced in many parts of the world. Automation is a valuable application that many sectors should consider, especially in making work easier for humans. In the future, robots may end up doing most of the physical work while humans do cognitive work.
The world is moving forward in technology, and the covid-19 pandemic has brought innovations in robotics. Going forward, robots will do more in epidemics than in previous times. We hope that lessons learned in past pandemics, including the current Covid-19, will be useful in the future. Contrary to popular belief, robots are not here to compete with humans but complement their efforts.