The Automation Imperative Accelerates

May 1, 2020

(Ed. Note: The “Innovation Fact of the Week” appears as a regular feature in each edition of ITIF’s weekly email newsletter. Sign up today.)

It was never true. Automation was not destined to destroy our jobs and leave us all with nothing to do. Quite the contrary. Modern nations need all the automation they can get if they are to meet the economic, demographic, environmental, and competitiveness challenges of the 21st century.

The coronavirus pandemic has made this “automation imperative” much more immediate, while greatly accelerating the pace of digital change. Just think of all the tasks where technology-enabled automation now plays a vital societal role. How do we check-in with friends and family? How many orders can the online grocery industry fulfill? How easily can companies ramp up production of items facing a shortage? How fast can governments and banks process loans and put money directly into peoples’ accounts. How well can videoconferencing services such as Zoom scale? How can we talk to our doctor without visiting an office or hospital? How can e-learning fill in for all the schools and universities that have closed? How quickly can COVID-19 tests be conducted and interpreted? How reliably can firms operate with literally no one in the office? We could easily go on.

Meeting these digital challenges at scale requires “industrial strength” technology—products and services that are so familiar and reliable that they will not crack when they are most necessary. Indeed, the impressive way that the Internet and broadband networks have (mostly) held up over the last month of unprecedented usage—even as so many key IT people work from home—will in all likelihood put an end to the current “techlash.” Although concerns about artificial intelligence, privacy, monopoly power, fake news, et al. certainly will not go away, they now seem more like the comfortable musings of an elite class. They pale in comparison to the truly vital services that information technology now provides. Fortunately for all of us, the Internet is the one area the virus can’t touch.

In addition to scalability and reliability, coping with the coronavirus has also changed our technology habits, probably forever. People are getting used to taking music lessons online, making videos for one another, hanging out on Zoom, talking to their doctors over the phone, ordering groceries online, attending virtual classrooms, engaging with their trainers on their laptops, and countless other tasks. Initially, many of us have been doing these things out of necessity, but going forward it is likely that we will increasingly do them out of choice, as they improve our lifestyles by increasing convenience and lowering costs. Looking ahead, the need to better support these new digital applications, skills, and behaviors will drive the next phase of technology innovation, with potentially significant environmental benefits as well.

In all likelihood, human ingenuity will step up to meet the coronavirus challenge. However, the impact of today’s isolation economy will almost certainly linger. Organizations are rethinking their entire value chains from a safety and resiliency perspective, and as they do this, automation will be brought to bear in just about every phase. For rideshare companies like Uber, autonomous vehicles suddenly seem like a much higher priority, even a must-have. For companies that depend on face-to-face interactions, such as to sign documents, digital signatures will reach new levels of acceptance. For government agencies that find themselves paralyzed by having to send their workers home, digital technologies will be the lifeline that lets them keep serving citizens. For factories that were designed to produce large quantities of a few products, “smart factory” technologies will become an imperative if they want to cope with rapid changes in demand requirements and supply chain constraints. 

Rather than constitute a threat to jobs and human dignity, automation will increasingly be seen as a protector of both. Companies and other organizations that want to thrive going forward will realize and act upon this insight. Likewise, policymakers should do what’s necessary to make our economy and society more resilient through digitally enabled automation. Taken together, this bodes well for 21st century innovation and progress, once this deadly pandemic is largely behind us.