Will Robots takeover the post COVID-19 World?

The Healthcare sector has started using robots to perform a wide range of risk-prone tasks which are otherwise intended for the human workforce. Now, treading the ‘robotic’ path are other industries that may cause a mixed effect on employment.

Social distancing, which is now a household term, has been etched in the minds of millions of individuals as the remedy for fighting against the spread of this global pandemic. All over the world, organizations and individuals are seeking ways to limit close contact with others while carrying out their day-to-day businesses.

Some industries, like the healthcare sector, are terribly hit by this pandemic. While drugs and pharmaceuticals are in more demand (as always!), the medical service part is coming under enormous pressure. To execute duties effectively, health workers are required to come in close contact with infected patients. Thus, health workers are on the top of the list of those who are most likely to be affected and may become the carrier of coronavirus. Moreover, across the globe, healthcare workers are now overworked, fatigued and in numerous cases, are themselves the victims of the coronavirus.

However, it is not the healthcare sector feeling the brunt only. A shortage in manpower has been experienced not only by the healthcare service domain but also other important sectors driving the economy. Apart from organizations providing essential services, other non-essential ones are either shutting down for the time being or running skeletally. These businesses cannot exercise their maximum production potentials which, has led to heavy financial losses.

But men find ways.

As an alternative to the human workforce, several organizations have deployed robots to execute certain activities thus, limiting human-to-human contact. Since a majority of the personnel are restricted to work-from-home or simply work-less, these organizations are still in need of workers to be on site for the smooth running of their businesses. Naturally, as we expect social distancing to take a while before things normalize to how they were, the use of robots has become a practical idea rather than a theoretical or futuristic one.

Sectors adapting the use of robots

Healthcare: The world of medical care is the forerunner in seeking ways to incorporate the usage of robots. This happened long ago when ‘hugging’ was considered normal.  Now, since ‘untouchability’ has become the new norm, using robots for fulfilling essential needs, is a ground-breaking development towards reducing unavoidable contact with patients. Some examples of hospitals using robots are:

According to the Indian Daily Times of India (TOI), a hospital in Kochi, Kerala, India now deploys the use of a robot developed by local start-up Asimov Robotics. The three-wheeled robot (named ‘Karmi Bot’) is customized for COVID-19 wards and is equipped with a nozzle to spray disinfectant with cabinets to carry masks, critical supplies, food, and medicines. It also comes with a video calling feature that can keep patients in touch with family members.

At the time of writing this post, another hospital in Bengaluru, India, was about to deploy the use of robots for the initial screening of patients. Named Mitra and Mitri, these robots will use five on-screen questions for those entering the hospital. The person will get an entry if he/she is cleared as a non-COVID risk after being screened by the robot; else, the person will be asked to consult a doctor via a video call.

Hospital Care Assistive Robotic Device (HCARD), is another robotic device that enables interactions between doctors and patients without them being in the same room. This robot is controlled remotely and is developed by the Central Mechanical Engineering Institute based in Durgapur, Eastern India.

Not left out too is a Danish manufacturer of Ultraviolet light Disinfection robots or UVD Robots. Since the COVID-19 breakout, the company recorded a sharp increase in demand for UVD Robots and shipped multiple orders to various hospitals in China and Europe.

Other Sectors: The Healthcare sector is not just the only one deploying the use of robots. We also have big restaurants and warehouses that have keyed into robotic help to keep the business floating while maintaining social distancing. A few examples are:

  • McDonald’s is trying to use robots as cooks and servers.
  • A supermarket located in Washington, DC, uses a fleet of six robots to deliver purchases ordered by customers within a mile from its location. The robot looks much like a portable refrigerator with six wheels, can deliver an order within an hour of purchase made by the customer using a mobile app.
  • Japanese manufacturer SoftBank Robotics’ semi-humanoid robot ‘Pepper’ is now in use at supermarkets in Germany where it educates customers on how to fight the coronavirus. While in Tokyo, this same robot, Pepper, works in hotels accommodating COVID-19 patients. And what do they perform? Well, Pepper’s job is to uplift the mood of patients and provide information on precautionary measures to be followed by them.
  • America’s biggest retailer, Walmart, scrubs its floors and takes the inventory of products at its warehouses using robots.
  • Several warehouses operated by Amazon and Walmart already have robots and post-outbreak these are now used for sorting, packing, and shipping.
  • Since their human content moderators can’t review certain things from home, both Facebook and Google now rely on robotic editors to remove inappropriate posts.

To prevent coronavirus infections while sanitizing, some countries are now using cleaning robots. According to a report issued by IANS, the New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) will use of Robotic Ultraviolet Machine (RUVM) for sanitizing hospitals, offices, and other closed spaces. Developed by a start-up named Avishkar, these robots are remotely operable from a distance of 200-meters and can sanitize a moderately equipped room within a few minutes.

Investors’ reactions to rapid robotic development

Investors, despite the ongoing economic slowdown, are increasingly backing up the development of robots. SoftBank-backed BrainCorp, responsible for the development of robotic scrubbers and other applications for the healthcare sector, recently raised $36 million in funding money. Another robotic firm based in Beijing that specializes in logistics, announced a $15 million Series B+ funding yielding the volume to more than $40 million. In almost every country, robot manufacturing companies are getting investment provided their robots have practical use.

As per data and market prediction by Interact Analysis that took place before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the overall market for Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) and Autonomous Ground Vehicles (AGVs) is expected to generate over $10 billion by the year 2023. Now, this is old data. With COVID-19 taking place, we now have some pressing needs for using robots and this factor will definitely surge up this ten billion-dollars figure by several notches.

Effects of Robotics on the human workforce

The pandemic has sidelined workers from all sectors across the globe. Except for information technology and some other related sectors where people can deliver substantial output working-from-home, the majority of the global workforce is now sitting idle. For business owners, this is an enormous loss and they are now ready to shell out the money for buying a robot, which otherwise would have been spent on employee wages. While a robot is no means cheap, it gives the added benefit of making it work relentlessly and with precision. This, in fact, is turning out to be a good return on investment. For certain types of work, robots are far more productive than their human counterparts, and more and more business owners are now realizing this fact.

Needless to say, with the increased use of robots, people are raising concerns over the impact it may have on the human workforce in terms of employment. Global marketers, in a bid to promote the sale of robots, always say that robots are not meant to replace workers; the robot is there to improve quality, efficiency, and the overall time required to do a job. Robots are pre-programmed (mostly, of course, leaving aside the ones powered by artificial intelligence) and jobs intended for robots sometimes need human intervention, experts say. However, COVID-19 has changed these views. Robots have now become a necessity, rather than an option. Business owners now do not have the luxury to debate over robots and humans. They will need to embrace robots.

Collaborative robots, which are just a little fraction as compared to the overall automation industry, are good at executing repetitive tasks carried out with some level of human intervention. The convergence of technologies like machine vision, open-source robotic operating systems, sensors, mobile components along machine learning and AI, has now paved the way for major automation unthinkable even a decade ago. So, enters Cyborg to take over.

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Way before the pandemic, a 2017-report by the global consultant, McKinsey, forecasted that by 2030, automation and robots would replace a third of the total human workforce of the United States. But then again, who knew about COVID-19?

So, let’s not wait till 2030.

In a post-pandemic world, the employer who bought a robot to do a certain task is unlikely to pack up and dump it in the backyard even if the employee (or ‘employees’) whose job the robot is doing, returns to work. The result? Loss of jobs. Although there will be people to manage the robots, those who lost their job to the robots will be shifted elsewhere or be given the pink slip. Term it is as unethical, brutal or whatever you want; this is bound to happen.

However, there are brighter and more humane views.

According to Felix Yang, Accelerated Digitalization Lead, at SF DHL China, the work earmarked for robots and automation are simple; repetitive tasks which are otherwise, performed by manual laborers. Although manufacturers will try to develop collaborative robots designed to take part in complex production processes, the very need for human intervention will remain critical for any business process to run. Humans are and always will be guaranteed to have the ‘first preference’ if they compete with robots in the job interview!

Whether it cleans floors or delivers pizzas, drives forklifts, or entertains kids, robots have been there for quite some time. Now with millions of human lives at stake, robots are expected to do things that, otherwise are humanly impossible to perform. In the coming days, robots will turn out to be the smartest choice for the human race. In Isaac Asimov’s words, “A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

Image source: Piqsels

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