Monday, October 25, 2021

Do we need humans for that job? Automation boom after COVID-19

Ask for a roast beef sandwich at an Arby’s drive-thru east of Los Angeles and you’ll be talking to Tory—an artificially intelligent voice assistant who will take your order and send it to the line cook.

“It doesn’t say ill,” said Amir Siddiqui, whose family this year installed AI Voice at their Arabica franchise in Ontario, Calif. “It doesn’t get corona. And it has great credibility.”

The pandemic not only posed a threat to the health of Americans when it slammed the US in 2020 – it also posed a long-term threat to many of their jobs. Faced with labor shortages and high labor costs, companies are beginning to automate service sector jobs that economists once considered safe, believing that machines simply could not provide human interaction. that the customers would demand.

Past experience shows that such automation waves ultimately create more jobs than they destroy, but that they also disproportionately wipe out the low-skilled jobs on which many low-income workers depend. The consequences of growing pains for the US economy could be dire.

If not for the pandemic, Siddiqui might not have bothered to invest in new technology that could alienate existing employees and some customers. But it went smoothly, he said: “Basically, fewer people are needed but those people are now working in kitchens and other areas.”

Ideally, automation could redeploy workers into better and more interesting jobs, says economist Johannes Moenius of the University of Redlands, as long as they can receive the appropriate technical training. But although it is happening now, it is not moving very fast, he says.

Worse yet, an entire class of service jobs may now be at risk when manufacturing begins to implement more automation. “Robots escaped from the manufacturing sector and moved to the much larger service sector,” he said. “I considered the contact jobs to be safe. I was completely shocked.”

Improvements in robotic technology allow machines to perform many tasks that previously required people – tossing pizza dough, transporting hospital linens, inspecting gauges, sorting goods. The pandemic accelerated their adoption. After all, robots can neither get sick nor spread disease. Nor do they demand time off to handle unexpected child care emergencies.

Economists at the International Monetary Fund found that past pandemics had encouraged firms to invest in machines that could boost productivity – but also kill low-skill jobs. “Our results suggest that concerns about the rise of robots in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic seem reasonable,” he wrote in a January paper.

The consequences could be worst on less-educated women, who occupy disproportionately low- and medium-wage jobs exposed to automation – and to viral infections. Those jobs include salesclerks in hospitals, administrative assistants, cashiers and aides, and caregivers of the sick and elderly.

Employers seem eager to bring in the machines. A survey last year by the non-profit World Economic Forum found that 43% of companies plan to reduce their workforce as a result of new technology. Since the second quarter of 2020, business investment in equipment has grown 26% – more than twice as fast as the overall economy.

Nation World News Desk
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