For Better And For Worse: COVID-19 Is Forcing Companies To Speed Up Automation

For Better And For Worse: COVID-19 Is Forcing Companies To Speed Up Automation

Corona-virus will force companies to speed up their plans to replace jobs with automation, according to a report published by analyst company Forrester. In its report, Forrester notes that many companies are set to invest more in automation than in rehiring in the wake of the corona-virus pandemic, corroborating earlier reports that had claimed many businesses were already planning to accelerate their automation strategies.

The news comes as businesses ponder how they can resume working amid lockdowns and social distancing. And while many will take the news as confirmation of their worst automation-themed fears, Forrester’s report urges companies who haven’t already done so to ramp up their automation plans. Indeed, Forrester holds that automation may become key to surviving a corona-virus recession, at least as far as businesses are concerned.

“Studies of employment recovery in the aftermath of recent recessions show that the more recent the recession, the longer it’s taken for jobs to recover,” says Forrester’s Leslie Joseph. “As companies have recovered their revenues and reopened their supply chains, they have increasingly invested not on rehiring the workforce but on automation and on reducing their dependence on manpower.”

As Joseph adds, Forrester does “not expect the aftermath of this recession to be different.” That said, in the face of a global pandemic, “the enterprise coverage and strategic value of automation technologies” has now greatly risen, putting unprecedented pressure on companies to accelerate their pre-existing trend towards automation.

This chimes with a March report from EY, which found that 41% of bosses in 45 countries were investing in accelerating automation as they prepare for a post-coronavirus world.

However, while it’s now all-but certain that the coronavirus will speed up–and likely is speeding up–the shift towards worker-less work, a rush towards AI could exacerbate many of the problems that critics have long associated with automation. According to Nan Craig, a London-based researcher of work with the Centre for Global Studies, there are two dangers of accelerating this trend towards automation.

“First, there’s the question of ‘who wins’ from automation,” she tells me. “The US unemployment rate hit 14.7% in April, the worst monthly figure on record, and the UK economy will probably be similarly hard-hit. If automation becomes the way out of the pandemic, many of those specific jobs may never return, even when the economy eventually improves.”

As Craig adds, this means lost jobs have to be replaced with other types of work, and if the gig economy has taught as anything, they may be of a distinctly lower quality.

Secondly, Craig also argues that a headlong flight towards automation may inadvertently worsen climate change. She says, “If that longer-term need gets overlooked in the rush to put things back to ‘normal’, it’s not just a huge missed opportunity but it could set us back a long way. Infrastructure and practices that get put in place now which don’t take the environment into account will cause massive problems down the line.”

However, as things stand, Craig agrees that the coronavirus pandemic will most likely result in an accelerated expansion of automation.

“The option to reduce close physical contact using automation is going to be more than tempting–it might be a matter of staying open or closing, for some businesses,” she explains. “But also the need to cut costs–by closing premises and going remote, or keeping fewer workers on and distancing them more effectively–will be intense because of the economic downturn that’s going to follow this crisis.”

Along with Warwick University economic historian Robert Skideslky, Craig edited Work In The Future: The Automation Revolution, a book published in March by Palgrave Macmillan. In it, various researchers and scholars (including Craig herself, as well as David Graeber and Nick Srnicek) discuss the likely ramifications of the onset of AI in the context of work. Many of the essays included in the book discuss problems that have been emerging for several years, but Craig suggests that the coronavirus will make such problems worse.

“If you need bigger spaces and complicated processes to accommodate the same number of workers as before, that’s going to add to the pressure to automate,” she says. “This will accelerate a trend that already existed. But the social/economic danger of automation is not in the technology itself, it’s that the benefits of automation don’t accrue to everyone equally.”

Indeed, in a post-2008 economic climate in which tech giants such as Google and Amazon have amassed trillion-dollar valuations, inequality has “drastically” increased in the United States. There’s a danger that the post-coronavirus will do much the same, spearheaded by the accelerating rise of the robots and a concomitant growth in ‘casual’ jobs.

Again, automation solves many of the problems thrown up by the coronavirus, so it’s very hard to see how automation won’t increase in the immediate aftermath.

“I can see factory and service jobs where workers suddenly need to be distanced, and so there is more pressure to automate,” says Craig. “It might make self-service more attractive, especially if you can solve the problem of touch-screens … We’ve also long seen the possibility of ‘care robots’ and remote-caring systems (mainly in Japan where there is a larger elderly population).”

No doubt there will be other areas invaded by automation. And with the global cost of the coronavirus pandemic likely to exceed $4 trillion, the financial pressure to automate will be huge. In other words, automation is coming, and faster than we imagined. So we need to get ready now, not only by re-skilling people, but by giving them the financial means to survive in a world without traditional 9-5 work.

originally posted on by Simon Chandler