At Work

Why Robots Loved the Pandemic

By: Michael McQueen

You’ve likely read the headlines regarding how many million jobs will be taken by robots, or what percentage of professions will disappear in the coming years.

While some of these predictions are deliberately crafted for dramatic effect, they may well be close to the mark.

The most thorough and widely reported research looking at the potential of automation-led job losses in the coming years was conducted by researchers at Oxford University. These researchers found that as many as 47% of total United States employment had a ‘high risk of computerisation’ by the early 2030s[1] — more than 64 million jobs in all.[2]

Global consulting giant McKinsey suggests the numbers may not be as dramatic as they appear on the surface. They contend that very few occupations – less than 5% – consist entirely of activities that can be automated. However, in about 60% of occupations, at least one-third of the constituent activities could be automated, implying substantial workplace transformations and changes for all workers.[3]

Even still, McKinsey’s scenarios suggest that by 2030, up to 375 million workers (roughly 14% of the global workforce) will need to switch occupational categories.[4]

Many Businesses Will Employ *More* People Thanks to Technology

As an indication of how nuanced the automation story is, a report from the World Economic Forum reveals that while 43% of businesses indicate that they are set to reduce their workforce due to automation, 34% plan to expand their workforce due to technology integration. What’s clear is that while the aggregate number jobs may not collapse in in the coming year as some predicted, the types of jobs and the form of work is definitely going to change. To this point, the World Economic Forum reports predicts that the time spent on tasks at work by humans and machines will be equal by 2025.[5]

MIT economist Daron Acemoglu cautions that one of the lesser-known factors driving an increase in automation is the way that taxation laws incentivise businesses to err on the side of technology. Acemoglu points to the fact that while US firms pay roughly 25 cents in taxes for every dollar they pay workers, they pay just 5 cents for every dollar spent on machines because companies can write these off as capital investments.[6]

There have been scores of examples in recent years of automation redefining the type of work that humans have traditionally done. This has been especially true throughout the pandemic, which gave robots more chances than ever to rise through the ranks.

The Case of Spot the Robotic Dog

The use of Boston Dynamic’s robotic dog, Spot, is a case in point. In the early days of the pandemic, the Singapore department of health enlisted Spot’s help to enforce social distancing rules in public spaces around the city-state rather than endangering the health of police. In a less public utilisation of the same technology, Australian electricity provider SA Power began using Spot to help monitor poles and wires in the power grid to identify where maintenance may be required. This surveillance work is often done in dangerous and remote environments.[7]

It is a similar story in the US where the electric and gas utility company National Grid is using Spot to inspect and monitor electrical substations using thermal imaging technology. Historically, this work was done by humans and required a costly and inconvenient shut down of the facility in the interests of safety – a consideration not necessary when it’s a robot that is in harm’s way. BP is using Spot in much the same way to autonomously read gauges, monitor corrosion and measure methane on some of its oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.[8]

According to Allied Market Research, the global market for inspection robots like Spot is set to be $14 billion by 2030 – up from $940 million in 2020. It’s predicted that the insurance industry alone will spend $1.7 billion on robotic surveillance systems by 2025.[9]

Robot holding a seedling

In the agricultural sector, automation is playing a similarly significant role. When COVID-19 lockdown and travel restrictions prevented Italy’s wineries from employing migrant workers for the autumn grape harvest, wineries turned to robots to make up the shortfall. After decades of resisting grape-harvesting automation, necessity became the mother of invention and it’s unlikely that winegrowers will go back to the way things were.[10]

Looking to larger-format agricultural automation, the 2022 launch of John Deere’s self-driving tractor gives an indication of what’s in store for cropping and harvesting. This new tractor can plow fields and plant crops with minimal human intervention and relies on similar technology to that being used in autonomous cars.[11]

Automation in Primary Production

In the world of primary production, the pandemic’s impact on worker availability has also sparked a move toward automation. Tyson Foods announced in December 2021 that they would invest more than $1.3 billion over the space of three years to radically increase the use of robotics and automation. With labour shortages inhibiting Tyson’s ability to meet demand, the company will increasingly use machines instead of people to debone chicken – one of its most labor-intensive jobs and one that traditionally has high rates of staff turnover. Tyson expects these automated processes to boost production and reduce labor costs with a cumulative saving of more than $450 million by 2024. David Bray, group president of Tyson’s poultry division, suggests that the labor savings equal to more than 2,000 jobs.[12]

All this being said, it remains true that with every advance of technology, jobs are created as much as they are replaced. While it is easy to slip into catastrophising the rise of the robots, it is much more accurate to acknowledge the jobs that will be created that we can’t even imagine yet.

Half the challenge of predicting the ramifications of automation in the years to come is that it’s almost impossible to imagine the impact of technologies that are still in their infancy. The reality is these ramifications on workers are not necessarily always negative. As difficult as it is to predict the jobs that will be lost, it is equally impossible to predict those that will be gained.

Either way, while the last two years were hated by most humans, the robots were well and truly in their element.

[1]  2017, ‘The World in 2050’, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, February.

[2]  Ford, M. 2015, Rise of the Robots, Basic Books, New York, p. 223.

[3]  2017, ‘Jobs Lost, Jobs Gained: Workforce Transitions In A Time Of Automation’, Mckinsey Global Institute, December

[4]  2017, ‘Jobs Lost, Jobs Gained: Workforce Transitions In A Time Of Automation’, Mckinsey Global Institute, December

[5]  2020, ‘The future of jobs report 2020’, World Economic Forum, 20 October.

[6]  Weber, L. 2021, ‘Many jobs lost during the Coronavirus pandemic just aren’t coming back,’ The Wall Street Journal, 15 July.

[7]  Shepherd, T. 2021, ‘Robotic dog employed to roam Adelaide streets in search of damaged power lines,’ The Guardian, 7 September.

[8]  Petrova, M. 2021, ‘Robotic dogs taking on jobs in security, inspection and public safety,’ CNBC, 26 December.

[9]  Petrova, M. 2021, ‘Robotic dogs taking on jobs in security, inspection and public safety,’ CNBC, 26 December.

[10]  Lovett, I. 2021, ‘Robots take over Italy’s vineyards as Wineries Struggle With Covid-19 Worker Shortages,’ The Wall Street Journal, 3 October.

[11] Estes, A. 2022, ‘John Deere’s autonomous tractor brings us one step closer to self-farming farms,’ Vox, 8 January.

[12]  2021, ‘Tyson foods plans to spend $1.3 billion to automate meat plants,’ Reuters, 10 December.

Article supplied with thanks to Michael McQueen.

About the Author: Michael is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.

Feature image: Photo by Aideal Hwa on Unsplash  

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