Find the latest episode of "The Uncertain Hour" here. Listen
COVID-19

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

Sabri Ben-Achour Oct 21, 2020
Heard on:
HTML EMBED:
COPY
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
Heard on:
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

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

Read More

Collapse

Marketplace is on a mission.

We believe Main Street matters as much as Wall Street, economic news is made relevant and real through human stories, and a touch of humor helps enliven topics you might typically find…well, dull.

Through the signature style that only Marketplace can deliver, we’re on a mission to raise the economic intelligence of the country—but we don’t do it alone. We count on listeners and readers like you to keep this public service free and accessible to all. Will you become a partner in our mission today?

Your donation is critical to the future of public service journalism. Support our work today – for as little as $5 – and help us keep making people smarter.