During the COVID-19 pandemic, some companies began significant investments into robots that can serve in their restaurants, assist in their medical facilities, and even enforce social distancing rules. And these robots getting better at their jobs.
Robots as essential workers context
In 2020, as many as 33 countries deployed robots in different industries as a response to the worsening pandemic, according to the research organization Robotics for Infectious Diseases. This included robots being used to disinfect roads and other public properties, realtor robots showing potential real estate buyers around properties through a remote screen, and even robots marching down a graduation aisle to represent locked-down students.
More than just tools for factory automation, robots have shown their versatility across different sectors, including for lower end retail and service jobs/tasks that were once thought of as being uneconomical to apply robotics toward. The COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated the demand for robots as governments and companies look to accelerate their long-term automation goals to complement human workers and perform repetitive tasks efficiently.
As workers, robots are ideal. They don't mind monotonous tasks; they stick to the schedule, and they never get sick (an especially handy feature during a pandemic). Some hospitals are now using robots for various duties such as disinfecting intensive care units (ICUs) and equipment, teleconsultation, and bringing samples to internal labs. Across the sky and on the streets, delivery robots are dropping medical supplies, and delivering food and parcels to customers. In retirement homes, humanoid robots are used for telepresence, where residents can converse with their loved ones through a screen. In parks, four-legged machines are used to patrol and remind people to social distance.
Society has become more accepting of robots than ever before, and a study about disaster robotics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) concluded that these machines do not replace humans. In fact, most of them still need to be operated or supervised by humans. Still, there are ethical concerns in using robots, such as environmental issues and privacy violations.
Implications for robots as essential workers
Potential implications for robots as essential workers may include:
- A structural reassessment of labor needs among various companies in various industries, as the automation invested in during the COVID-19 pandemic may negate the need to rehire some workers.
- Less young people being attracted to low-paying service jobs that they may view as being at a high risk toward automation. This view could become self-fulfilling, as companies facing labor shortages will further invest in automation.
- Increased venture funding for robotics related startups focusing on various niches where robots can provide value to companies and people.
Questions to comment on
- Would you be willing to work alongside a robot?
- Can robots be applied in your work setting or that of your peers? How so?