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How The Crisis Flipped The Script On Job Automation

In an age when technology is making ever greater strides, does it still make sense to ask people to do dangerous and repetitive manual tasks?

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When I walked into the cavernous distribution center for a big global retailer this April, I didn’t know what to expect. It was the early days of the pandemic: ecommerce had shifted into overdrive, but so had questions about the safety of frontline workers. 

Inside, warehouse employees had been picking, packing and stacking inside close quarters, working through the week on extended shifts. I was there to announce that a new AI-powered system would be going online — reducing the need for manual picking and lessening the workload.

In pre-crisis days, this kind of automation wasn’t always welcomed. But when we shared the news with the employees on hand that day, they broke out in applause. 

Covid has prompted a broad reset on attitudes toward smart automation, in the warehouse context and beyond. What was already taxing work has only become more of a health and safety concern in the pandemic. Meanwhile, concerns about job loss have been tempered by the stark reality that in a world of one-day shipping and globalized supply chains, human power literally can’t keep up. What robots can do for us and for our economy is once again on the table — and it’s about time. 

Automation is no longer a luxury

Although it’s easy to see Covid as a disrupter, it has only accelerated trends already in motion before the pandemic hit. Indeed, in the warehouse world, concerns about capacity and safety were already pushing automation to the fore.  

It’s no secret warehouse work is tough. Repetitive movements and awkward lifting mean warehouse workers suffer injuries at a rate nearly twice that of all workers in private industry, including construction and coal mining. Combine that with a relentless workload and the turnover rate hovers around 10% for many organizations, and is often much higher. As an industry adage goes, “You either last two weeks or 20 years.” Even in an age of relatively attractive starting wages and signing bonuses, finding workers to fill warehouse roles represents a monumental challenge. Demand for ever-faster shipping speeds and a greater range of products has translated to mounting vacancies, costing companies billions.

And that was all before Covid. Nearly overnight, the demands and risks of the job became exponentially greater. Online orders surged as people sheltered in place, generating double-digit sales growth across the ecommerce industry.

Workers in warehouses and distribution centers — now considered essential — raced to fill the gaps, picking and packing orders so that others could stay home. With employees clustered together in close quarters, the risk of outbreaks increased. In mid-May, one facility in Minnesota had an infection rate of 1.7% –– roughly four times higher than any county in the nearby Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area.

Faced with the choice of protecting themselves or making a living, more workers opted to stay home, and any labor gaps fell on the shoulders of those who remained on the job. Empty shelves in stores and supermarkets and long delays for online orders made the situation painfully clear: supply was unable to keep up with demand.

Treating workers like humans — not robots

For all those reasons, we’ve seen an embrace of automation across the board during Covid. 66% of e-commerce companies queried said the pandemic has made them more willing to invest in more automation. Major retailers and distributors are racing to install automated systems as demand continues to swell. But it all begs a broader question that transcends warehouses and fulfilment centers.

Covid has disrupted our structures and systems, but it’s also given us the opportunity to change the things that weren’t functioning that well to begin with — and the way we work is near the top of that list. Put simply, in an age when technology is making ever greater strides, does it still make sense to ask people to do dangerous and repetitive manual tasks?   

In the past, convention, economic arguments and concerns about job loss complicated the answer to that question. But Covid has invited a reset, and the tenor of the conversation has shifted markedly. Once considered a threat, automation itself is increasingly seen by labor groups as a tool to support and complement essential workers. It’s been heralded as a means to keep people safe and free up human minds for more creative tasks. It’s seen as a way to keep up with global demand while enabling new roles that won’t run humans ragged. 

None of these value propositions is new. But they’re gaining broader traction at the same time that objections are slowly clearing. Meanwhile, the technology has, in no uncertain terms, arrived — my company’s systems can already pick up to 95% of objects, selecting homogenous and heterogenous items out of storage bins and putting them into customer orders, saving human workers from back-breaking tasks. Machine vision, artificial intelligence and robotics are converging at a faster pace than we even imagined.

But applications for automation extend far beyond the warehouse. South Korea, for instance, has incorporated robots to keep their economy running and citizens safe during the pandemic. Self-navigating robots check people’s temperatures, dispense hand sanitizer and disinfect floors, while automated baristas take orders, make drinks and deliver them to seated patrons. The case for automation — in industries as diverse as long-haul trucking and robot-assisted surgery — only stands to grow stronger in the years ahead. 

Now that we’ve mustered the impetus and resolve to embrace these tools, however, we’ll have to face the disruption.

The challenges of change

Automation will displace human workers, and there are no silver bullets. The period of transition will introduce disruption as old jobs become obsolete and new ones emerge. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll see fewer jobs — not by a longshot. 

According to the World Economic Forum, machines, robots and algorithms in the workplace stand to create about 133 million jobs globally compared to the 75 million they could displace. Indeed, there’s a long precedent for just such a rising tide, dating back to the Industrial Revolution. Technological innovation has always been integral to economic progress, and in a well-functioning labor market, automation has been shown to produce gains for all types of workers.

What those jobs will look like is a critical question. The IEEE Robotics and Automation Research and Practice Ethics Committee envisions a society where robots handle the repetitive, unhealthy and uninteresting work, leaving humans free to supervise and think creatively. We’re already seeing this shift in the warehouse context. I won’t forget the woman who had worked as a picker for 18 years before her role was automated. For her, being replaced by a robot meant a bump in pay, a better quality of life and a new position using her expertise to supervise robots doing the work she had once done. 

Beyond the immediate impacts on the workforce, properly implementing automation can have larger economic implications. Entrepreneur Mark Cuban has been vocal about how investing in robotics and AI can create jobs and bring roles home from overseas, including positions for “the creation, the maintenance, the monitoring of software [and] the evaluation of the robotics.” Indeed, using robots has already helped the U.S. manufacturing industry compete with cheaper goods from abroad.

This hints at perhaps the greatest push factor of all behind automation: economic necessity. As companies around the world automate, and reap multiples of returns in terms of increased efficiencies and reduced costs, their competitors simply can’t afford to stand still. In an age of one-day shipping, when Amazon’s warehouses are already outfitted with thousands of smart robots, spurning automation is the equivalent of rejecting steam power 200 year ago. Ultimately, companies have to automate if they want to have a shot at staying afloat and providing jobs to local populations. The choice to automate repetitive roles isn’t a luxury: it’s existential.  

To be clear, all jobs have meaning –– they give us purpose and allow us to provide for ourselves and our families. But automation promises an opportunity to find purpose in a way that incurs less needless risk and in a way that’s better for people’s minds and easier on their bodies. The people packing boxes at warehouses and distribution centers right now are literally on the frontlines of the pandemic. They’re heroes, but they shouldn’t have to be. Not in an age when smart robots can handle that stuff with increasing ease, freeing humans up to do what we do best.

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