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Could increased dependence on robots during pandemic hasten the departure of humans from the workforce?

Robots are slowly starting to replace workers, who have no choice but to be homebound during this crisis
UPDATED MAY 11, 2020
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The human race continues to fight a raging battle with the contagion that has managed to wipe out masses and cause widespread devastation. The concern for safety has clouded everyone's minds in the past few months, forcing nations to go into a state of lockdown, shut down its business and impose guidelines to help prevent the spread of this deadly pandemic. While technology is proved to be a necessity in this time, will our dependence on it be our ultimate downfall?

The automation industry has been making progress manifold in recent years, however, then pandemic had caused developments to accelerate. Robots are slowly starting to replace workers, who have no choice but to be homebound during this crisis. But is our future threatened by this reality of being possibly displaced by machines? Analysts say it could rightly be so, with the COVID-19 pandemic only speeding up the process, according to BBC.

A UV cleaning robot cleans the floor near the ticketing windows at Pittsburgh International Airport on May 7, 2020, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania  (Getty Images)

America's biggest retailer Walmart is using robots to scrub its floor. San Diego-based Brain Corp, a company that specializes in software used in automated floor cleaning robots, also reported that there has been a 13 percent increase in sales since before the pandemic. In South Korea, robots are being used to measure temperature, during testing and distribute hand sanitizers

Robots are increasingly being adopted in the workplace scenario at the moment, and the trend is likely to resume even after the crisis has passed. Artificial Intelligence (AI) can keep the business running amid social distancing as these times are a huge health risk to human employees. However, the unemployment rates have plummeted to an all-time low almost akin to the Great Depression levels and looking at the current economic downfall we may lose our jobs to automation forever.  

(Getty Images)

Robots will be particularly attractive to front-line businesses that have to stay open during the pandemic, per Axios. Although automation companies have time and again asserted that their products are meant to assist human workers and not replace them, with tens and millions of unemployed Americans, the fear of being replaced by robots with the surge in automation.

Many people will possibly face difficulties in finding decent employment post-pandemic. "Low-income jobs will be particularly vulnerable to automation. As a result, "automation and digital technologies are exacerbating social cleavages and could be a source of unrest for years to come," said Carl Benedikt Frey of Oxford's Future of Work program in a piece for the Financial Times

The advances in automation usually happen in sudden surges and economic downturns act as the trigger, as can be concluded from past experiences. A study from 2018 noted that 88 percent of jobs lost during the three recessions in the past three decades, was in routine "automatable" occupations. According to a 2016 study that examined almost 100 million job vacancies on the internet before and after the 2008 recession, companies in the worst-hit areas were replacing employees routine employees with a combination of technology and more proficient workers. 

A Co-op food store employee loads an order into a delivery robot before it negotiates the empty pavements and pathways to make a home delivery on March 27, 2020, in Milton Keynes, England (Getty Images)

On the other hand, some experts suggest that the automation industry being a threat to employment has been over-exaggerated. According to Axios, a media report from January noted that in the past, occupational classes haven't entirely been supplanted by automation. Instead, robots have automated only parts of the jobs, which may have resulted in the loss of income but not necessarily loss in employment, altogether. 

While AI renders machines as geniuses, humans are way more mentally and physically flexible with their skills being more in demand then industrial robots. For instance, Amazon is looking to hire at least 100,000 more workers in its warehouses and as delivery drivers, despite not hiding the fact that it would employ automation where required. But the bottom line is that robots were going to be employed in place of humans to do certain jobs, and the epidemic will give employers the additional impetus to use automation where they need, But as of now the bigger threat to employment is the evident economic recession, and not that we will be losing our jobs to machines.