Robots don’t get sick. Will COVID-19 speed up workplace automation?

Five delivery drones flying above the city at sunset.
Five delivery drones flying above the city at sunset. Hiroshi Watanabe / Getty Images

What is an essential worker? The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the very idea on its head. Retail salespeople, entertainers and baristas do not make the cut. Grocery clerks, warehouse stockers and delivery people do.

Without these workers, the “rest of us” would starve and run out of toilet paper. Together with health-care workers and first responders, who have always been essential, they form the front line in the war against COVID-19.

Not surprisingly, the value of these unsung heroes has increased. Grocery chains have given their cashiers raises. Amazon employees are demanding personal protective equipment. When companies fail to support their personnel, they get negative publicity. They are thus scrambling to safeguard workers — and their reputations — by making changes. Changes that cost money — and that in low-margin businesses, like food, might be impossible to sustain in the long term, unless they substantially increase the price of their goods.

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Some observers claim this heralds a new era. We will place greater value on these essential jobs. Society will grant them more respect, and companies will grant them higher wages. Finally, we will realize the value of this work — work that has long been taken for granted.

In the short term, this is true. But in the long term, things may be quite different.

When workers become more expensive, the incentive to find alternatives to their labour increases. In a pandemic, businesses also need to account for costs associated with the spread of disease. Combine these two factors, and the most effective way to “pandemic-proof” your business is to remove humans from the equation as much as possible.

In other words, to automate.

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Coronavirus outbreak: Drone deliveries help elderly Chileans vulnerable to COVID-19

Consider the grocery store. Cashiers are commanding a premium and need to be protected from infection. But there are other ways of paying for groceries. Prior to COVID-19, stores had already introduced self-checkouts. The existing self-checkout model is not an option, as shared screens could spread disease. But if self-checkout could be connected to customers’ personal mobile devices, allowing them to scan items and pay from their own screen, this would reduce costs and keep food prices down.

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Food processing plants could also benefit from increased automation. A Cargill meat plant in High River, Alta., for example, was recently closed after a worker tested positive for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 and hundreds of other cases were reported. The cost to the plant is enormous, as is the cost of negative publicity to the entire meat industry. The incentive to replace workers with machines increases exponentially in such situations.

Robots don’t get sick. They don’t strike. They don’t demand higher wages for dangerous jobs. In fact, they are ideal for dangerous jobs. Which, in a pandemic, is any job that requires interaction with people.

READ MORE: Coronavirus pandemic raises question — is it time for a basic income?

What could be the consequences of accelerating automation of these essential jobs? Ironically, it dovetails with another policy shift that is emerging from the pandemic: the call for a universal basic income, or UBI.

To curb the spread of COVID-19, governments around the world are paying people a basic income to allow them to stay home and curb the spread of disease. Supporters of UBI argue that such payments should remain after the pandemic subsides and replace existing income support programs, such as employment insurance and welfare.

Before the pandemic, however, these advocates often cited a different reason for UBI: increasing automation. Well before COVID-19, they envisioned a future of less available work for humans and a greater need for income support.

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For some people, this crisis may produce that future. Jobs that can be automated will be automated at an accelerated rate. The cashier, the food plant worker, the trucker: all are vulnerable to automation. Today’s heroes may need some support to transition to the new economy, as they risk being replaced at a faster rate than they would have in a pre-COVID-19 world.

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But will this be the case for all workers? The answer is no. While some retail jobs will be replaced by online ordering, demand for others will return as customers, shuttered in their homes, seek a return to human contact. People will get out again to restaurants and stores and attend live events and performances. Jobs that cannot be automated, or that derive value from human interaction, will return.

We should not forget that just a month ago, unemployment rates in Canada were at historic lows, even as technology constantly accelerated. This is because while new technologies displace some workers, they open opportunities for others.

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Ten years ago, no one was a digital marketing specialist, social media monitor or Instagrammer. While it is unrealistic to assume that displaced grocery clerks will suddenly all become app developers and chief idea officers, those people and their companies will need support services that the displaced clerks might be able to provide down the line.

A permanent UBI is therefore not the right remedy for economic dislocation spawned by the pandemic, whether through automation or otherwise. Then, as now, income support should be targeted to people who need it, not to those who will be able to resume their employment. People who were paid to stay home are not owed more funds when the crisis is over. These should go to people who did not take that money and risked their well-being for the rest of us in our common time of need.

Tasha Kheiriddin is the founder and CEO of Ellipsum Communications and a Global News contributor.

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