How do you run a production line when everyone has to stand two metres apart?
Britain may have been allowed back to work – but under social distancing, some aspects of production and supply chains are no longer achievable by human beings.
That means companies are turning to machines to fill human workers’ shoes, with AI, robotic process automation (RPA), and industrial and service robots taking over simple roles. Remote monitoring services are also in demand, taking over from human supervisors to watch out for equipment failures.
In the business process management sector, companies that have been dipping their toes in the waters of automation for years, trying to balance the costs of implementation with the benefits of increased efficiency, have been forced to rush their plans to fruition much faster than planned. With human workers benched, they can’t afford not to. And many more companies are likely to follow suit, as the effects of COVID-19 are likely to last for some time to come.
It’s a bit like wartime, with Rosie the Robot saying “We can do it!” while humanity is away fighting the coronavirus. In fact, it’s a lot like that – because the workforce is going to be permanently transformed.
To begin with, firms are likely to go for simpler automated solutions such as backend processing and chatbots, which are more affordable than full-on industrial automation. But as we begin to recover from the pandemic, industry leaders in areas like retail and manufacturing will be looking to bring supply chains closer to their key markets, driving greater worldwide diversification and using AI, cloud technology and big data to boost demand responsiveness. That means that in the longer term, more crucial human functions are likely to be taken over by machines.
This is bound to lead to fears of the machines stealing our jobs, but the reality is more complex. Some roles will become obsolete, some new roles will be created, and others will be changed, becoming a collaboration between humans and machines. For example, AI and machine learning algorithms can help human device operators make better, more accurate decisions, so the machine effectively becomes an advisor to the human.
Ultimately, delivering on the promise – not the threat – of automation will require us to draw on our most human qualities: creativity and compassion. Companies may rethink their pay models to protect the livelihoods of workers whose hours will be shortened. New policies surrounding education and wage subsidisation (like UBI) could build a bold new world where we work less but accomplish more. Robots may be here to stay, but it’s up to all of us how they affect our lives.