COVID-19

Are businesses automating at a faster rate thanks to COVID-19?

Sabri Ben-Achour Oct 21, 2020
Heard on: Marketplace
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A bartender makes drinks at an event promoting AI in London last year. Leon Neal/Getty Images
COVID-19

Are businesses automating at a faster rate thanks to COVID-19?

Sabri Ben-Achour Oct 21, 2020
A bartender makes drinks at an event promoting AI in London last year. Leon Neal/Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
COPY

The pandemic may be accelerating automation and AI in the workplace: in other words, robots taking our jobs. That’s the word from the World Economic Forum, and other surveys of business executives suggest the same. 

Automation is disruptive in good times, so what are we to do in a time like this?

Robots have been taking people’s jobs for a while — for decades actually. But the pandemic is making that happen faster, according to Saadia Zahidi, managing director at the World Economic Forum.

“It’s sort of accelerated that process because of the forced digitization that has occurred for so much of the workforce,” she said.

Forced digitization, like the apps that restaurants had to start using to take orders. But also a mass rethinking of how business should get done: 67% of executives in a McKinsey survey say they are accelerating adoption of automation and artificial intelligence. Zahidi said a lot of employees see it coming.

“Workers are realizing they need to take, to some extent, their fate into their own hands and do much more of that online learning and training,” Zahidi said.

One of those workers is Ryan Black, an actor in New York who’s in a six-month bootcamp to become a software developer.

“Everything needs software these days,” Black said. “It is so tough; it is melting my brain,” he said of the nine-hour-a-day class.

Which raises a point, not everyone is going to be like Black and just become a software developer. What to do about them?

“There are lots of important things we should be doing,” said Jared Bernstein, senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “First of all, we just have to make sure people can continue to make ends meet.”

He is, for the record, not convinced that automation is sweeping the country any faster than it has been, but he said we should be prepared for it anyway.

“One way to solve the problem today is to create shorter training programs that are less than, say, getting a two-year degree or four-year degree,” said Susan Lund, a leader of the McKinsey Global Institute.

On the other hand, she said, the U.S. has lagged behind other countries when it comes to helping workers adapt to an economy that’s changing beneath their feet.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

Pfizer said early data show its coronavirus vaccine is effective. So what’s next?

In the last few months, Pfizer and its partner BioNTech have shared other details of the process including trial blueprints, the breakdown of the subjects and ethnicities and whether they’re taking money from the government. They’re being especially transparent in order to try to temper public skepticism about this vaccine process. The next big test, said Jennifer Miller at the Yale School of Medicine, comes when drug companies release their data, “so that other scientists who the public trust can go in, replicate findings, and communicate them to the public. And hopefully build appropriate trust in a vaccine.”

How is President-elect Joe Biden planning to address the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic turmoil it’s created?

On Nov. 9, President-Elect Joe Biden announced three co-chairs of his new COVID-19 task force. But what kind of effect might this task force have during this transition time, before Biden takes office? “The transition team can do a lot to amplify and reinforce the messages of scientists and public health experts,” said Dr. Kelly Moore, associate director for the Immunization Action Coalition. Moore said Biden’s COVID task force can also “start talking to state leaders and other experts about exactly what they need to equip them to roll out the vaccines effectively.”

What does slower retail sales growth in October mean for the economy?

It is a truism that we repeat time and again at Marketplace: As goes the U.S. consumer, so goes the U.S. economy. And recently, we’ve been seeing plenty of signs of weakness in the consumer economy. Retail sales were up three-tenths of a percent in October, but the gain was weaker than expected and much weaker than September’s. John Leer, an economist at Morning Consult, said a lack of new fiscal stimulus from Congress is dampening consumers’ appetite to spend. So is the pandemic.

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