|The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the world to a standstill, affecting major economic sectors. / Photo by OSORIOartist1 via Shutterstock|
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the world to a standstill, affecting major economic sectors. Most non-essential businesses have closed their doors and many consumers staying at home have quickly boosted their online shopping.
The rise of intelligent robots
In a survey conducted by market research company IDC between March 23 and 31, online shopping rose to 47% due to Covid-19 concerns. The fear of scarcity and the ability to purchase goods has led to the rise in bulk buying. However, the growth of eCommerce has also put extra pressure on the supply chain, requiring more shipping, packing, and picking of goods. Not to mention the last-mile delivery. This caused people to temporarily forget another threat to our future: the rise of intelligent robots.
Robotics in eCommerce
The rise in robotic technology has been viewed as a way to boost economic growth, but it also expected to cause millions of jobs to be replaced by automation. English theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking even previously pointed out that if machines can produce everything that people need, it means that artificial intelligence may replace humans.
Futurist Martin Ford, whose works focus on artificial intelligence, robotics, and their impact on the job market, society, and economy, also told BBC that people often say they want a human element in their interactions but the pandemic has changed that. It changes the preference of consumers and opens up opportunities for robot adoption. Companies both small and large are even expanding the use of robotics to reduce the number of employees physically coming to work. America’s biggest retailer Walmart, for instance, utilizes robots in scrubbing its floors.
Automation in the supply chain
Automation is transforming the supply chain process too. Robotics, AI, and digital connection working together are important to achieve the resiliency, efficiency, and speed required to meet the demands of the complex market and make sure that the supply lines are moving during a crisis.
In IDC’s 2002 Supply Chain survey, nearly 28% of the respondents considered it a top concern to improve the responsiveness or resiliency of their supply chain. Among the expected changes in the supply chain is the acceleration for robotics and automation into warehouses. This could lessen the number of complaints of warehouse workers who cannot maintain the required physical distance at work. Technology experts are concerned though because the moment a company has invested in automation, it is unlikely that it will rehire an individual for a role that has already been replaced by technology.
Robots may be more expensive to integrate into the operation but once they are running, they are cheaper than paying human workers for the long term. It also lowers a company’s overall risk.
In England, jobs that are most at risk from automation are waiters (73%), shelf fillers (72%), elementary sales occupations (71%), bar staff (71%), and kitchen and catering assistants (69%). This is according to the UK’s Office for National Statistics. On the other hand, jobs at the lowest risk are medical practitioners (18%), higher education teachers (20%), senior professionals in education (21%), secondary school teachers (21%), and dental practitioners (21%).
Automation could also eliminate 236 million jobs in China by 2030, 120 million jobs in India, 73 million jobs in the US, 30 million jobs in Japan, 18 million jobs in Mexico, and 17 million jobs in Germany, based on McKinsey Global Institute data.
South Korea has moreover adapted robots to give hand sanitizers to people and measure their temperatures. It's no surprise, then, that AI robot workers may be in greater demand as health experts have warned that social distancing measures may have to be observed through 2021.
Denmark-based UVD Robots, which makes an autonomous mobile robot that can enter a room and disinfect it using UV-C light, has shipped hundreds of robots to hospitals in Europe and China as well. More restaurants and groceries are using these machines too. Experts foresee that as more businesses reopen, more robots will be seen cleaning offices and schools.
Applying AI to solve the pandemic
Advancements in artificial intelligence applications, such as speech recognition, deep learning, machine learning, data analytics, natural language processing, facial recognition, and chatbots, have been utilized not just for diagnosis but also for vaccine development and contact tracing.
Canada-based artificial intelligence research and development company Stallion.AI’s CEO Samer Obeidat shared that the public deployment of intelligent robots and drones has been accelerated to contain the virus. Some governments have used drones to track people not using facemasks in public while others are using it to disinfect public spaces or broadcast information to a larger audience.
Obeidat cited MicroMultiCopter, a technology firm in Shenzen that introduced drones to transport quarantine materials and medical samples.
Even before the Covid-19 outbreak, thermal cameras had been utilized for detecting individuals with a high fever. The drawback of this technology, though, is that it needs a human operator. Now, cameras with AI multisensory tech have been deployed in nursing homes, hospitals, and airports. The same technology is now used to detect people with fever, recognize their faces, and track their movements.
For instance, Florida-based Tampa General Hospital used an AI system to intercept people with potential Covid-19 symptoms. Cameras are installed at entrances and the facial thermal scan picks up other symptoms, including discoloration and sweat to prevent visitors with fever from entering the premises.
Virtual healthcare agents are similarly used in the fight against Covid-19. Since response measures and healthcare systems can be overwhelmed, having multi-language chatbots or virtual healthcare assistants are used to answer questions related to Covid-19, offer clear guidelines and reliable information, recommend protection measures, advise whether a person needs hospital screening or should self-isolate in their homes, and monitor the symptoms of people.
Another area where the use of robots is likely to increase is food service. Fast-food chains, such as McDonald’s, have been testing robots in their kitchen even before the pandemic. McDonald's deep-frying robots can cook fries, fish, and chicken while its voice-activated drive-thrus can serve customers to decrease customer wait times.
The spread of Covid-19 has stretched the world’s health care systems and the economy. It makes sense why some countries have chosen to improve their response mechanism by digitizing as many steps as possible and allowing robots to be in the front lines in the battle against the pandemic.