10 Types of Work to Automate or Move Online for a COVID-19 World

Robert D. Atkinson July 10, 2020
July 10, 2020

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The COVID-19 pandemic has created a stark economic divide between jobs that can be done with little or no in-person interaction and those that cannot. Many of the workers holding the former can stay employed safely working from home. Many holding the latter are either out of work or are facing higher risks of contracting the disease.

The question is how to shift more jobs to the former category, and thereby increase stable employment while improving safety. The answer is by investing in automation. This might seem counterintuitive, particularly at a time of high unemployment, since automation implies eliminating some workers’ jobs. But the bigger picture is that investing in automation lowers prices and makes workers more productive, so they can earn more, which in turn increases demand, leading to more job creation.

The private sector must lead, but government should encourage it with an automation investment tax credit and a parallel effort to reform worker-retraining and adjustment policies. Here then are 10 particularly promising technologies for the COVID era:

  1. Automated ordering and service in restaurants. Restaurants could reopen more safely if patrons could order and pay on their own mobile devices. And some restaurants can automate further by having robotic food delivery carts bring the food to tables and using robots to cook orders.
  2. Brick-and-mortar retail automation. Some retailers that sell essential products, like prescription drugs and groceries, have remained open, but most others have not. Retail automation technologies—which can include everything from robotic floor cleaning, as Walmart is deploying, to self-checkout registers (or “grab and go” systems like those in Amazon Go stores), to robotic restocking of shelves—will let more stores open with fewer risks to workers.
  3. Autonomous mobile robots for warehouses and fulfillment centers. Without e-commerce companies like Amazon and Walmart, life in quarantine would be much more difficult. But while e-commerce lets customers shop from home, fulfilment center workers must still show up to work together. Increased use of autonomous mobile robots, or AMRs, can enable fulfillment centers to be less person-intensive.
  4. Automated delivery. From autonomous robots taking meals to homes and offices, to drones delivering packages, autonomous delivery services can replace local delivery drivers and couriers.
  5. Hospital robotic automation. Hospitals are on the front lines of the crisis, so automation that can reduce front-line care givers’ exposure is critical. Robots can substitute for humans in carrying out an array of tasks, including picking up trash, delivering medications to patients, disinfecting areas with UV light, and even giving patients certain tests.
  6. Autonomous taxis. Fully functional autonomous vehicles are still being developed but some designs are beginning to be put into service, as Waymo is doing in Phoenix. Widespread deployment, perhaps with cars that automatically disinfect with UV light after each passenger, can enable mobility without proximity, something that many people will desire.
  7. Autonomous trucks and freight rail. Long-haul truck drivers already face many health and safety hazards in their jobs, and being on the road now adds to the danger by exposing them to the virus, too. Freight railroads have fewer safety hazards, but they operate with two workers per locomotive, an engineer and a conductor, which increases health risks in a pandemic. The technologies for autonomy are improving, and once they are ready regulations should reflect that new reality.
  8. Telehealth. Regulations covering electronically delivered health care services—a.k.a., “telehealth”—are largely set at the state level and are heavily influenced by the medical lobby, which has resisted widespread adoption because of fear of competition. But technologies enabling telehealth are here today, and while many states and the federal government have instituted temporary waivers to enable telehealth, it is time for a national law to enable telehealth across state lines on a permanent basis.
  9. Automated hotel staff. Eventually people will begin traveling again, and when they do, hotel workers will be on the front lines. Hotels have a number of options for increasing automation, including robot valets that can carry luggage and deliver room service, automated concierges to provide guest information, and kiosks and mobile apps that enable self-service check-in and checkout.
  10. Automated meat processing. Meat and poultry processing plants have unfortunately been hotbeds of coronavirus infections, in part because employees work in close proximity. Fortunately, robots and related technologies are showing promise in reducing the labor intensity of this production.

Sometimes it takes a crisis to spur change. Until COVID-19, few thought that remote office work would be viable on a large scale. And yet many companies are now realizing that, going forward, they will be able to embrace increased remote work, backed up by increasingly sophisticated technology tools. Until recently, most restaurants did not think customers would accept mobile ordering or automated delivery. But now, many may be forced to implement these kinds of systems, and customers are likely not only to accept them, but to prefer them.

In this sense, if there is any bright spot in this terrible crisis, it is that we will all be forced to open our minds to new ways of doing business, many of which will boost productivity, improve quality, and create better jobs for more workers.