Deputy head of the intensive care unit Flavio Tangian, prepares a robot at 'Ospedale di Circolo' hospital, in Varese, Italy, Wednesday, April 8, 2020. Six robots will help healthcare professionals assist Covid-19 patients, one robot for every two patients to maximize monitoring and assistance. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
In hospitals in Italy robots have been dispatched to assist in coronavirus wards © Luca Bruno/AP

Futurologists have for the past few decades confidently predicted the rise of the robot, when intelligent machines will take jobs away from humans. That new era has never quite appeared. Machines have made advances into the workforce but there has been no wholesale transfer from man to machine. Today’s coronavirus pandemic, however, may bring this vision a little closer and speed up automation — just when concerns are rife about the prospect of mass unemployment.

New social distancing rules are already driving an uptake of automation in the short term. In hospitals, specialised robots are disinfecting rooms while others deliver blood samples to laboratories. In Italy, police have used drones to enforce social distancing rules. Autonomous floor-scrubbing robots are cleaning the aisles for several US supermarket chains.

The pandemic is likely to usher in longer-term changes too. As companies reconfigure their workplaces and factories, those with the necessary financial resources are likely to go ahead with long-planned investment into new machinery and more automated ways of working. Where it is possible, this is a good thing. 

Companies will see opportunities to put money into new data systems to connect supply chains. The pandemic may also hasten the adoption of robotic process automation, potentially allowing a hybrid workforce of robots and people and enabling humans to be more productive in other areas. Before today’s crisis, the countries with the highest penetration of robot use, including Japan and Germany, had very low unemployment. 

Not all companies will be able to invest for the future, however. A recent survey forecast that global spending on IT services and products will total $3.4tn this year, down 8 per cent from 2019. Many businesses will go under; others will only just manage to survive. 

Fears of mass unemployment, meanwhile, are real. Many of those who had expected to resume their jobs once lockdowns were lifted — in particular people in lower-paid roles that require physical tasks, such as cleaners or receptionists — might now see them go to robots. Even before the pandemic there were concerns over the impact on the lower-skilled of increased use of robots in areas such as warehouses. 

Governments need to be alert to the risks of exacerbating the crisis. Safeguarding existing jobs while finding ways to create new ones must be a priority. A recent McKinsey report recommends government interventions to stimulate consumer demand and rebuild confidence. History can be a guide; countries that suffered a sharp drop in tourism after terror attacks offered vouchers or discounts for targeted groups. 

There will be opportunities. The pandemic has forced countries to re-examine the resilience in their manufacturing supply chains such as food and healthcare. As a result some companies are likely to “reshore” manufacturing activities closer to home. They should be encouraged to do so in a tech-savvy way. 

Other sensible initiatives include grants for investment into new technologies. For small and medium-sized enterprises, fiscal incentives such as tax credits are an option. Improving workers’ skills will also be key. Governments should consider combining furlough schemes with training programmes. Longer-term interventions should focus on promoting technical skills. None of this will be easy. Policymakers will need imagination and flexibility to arm the next generation with the right skills so they have no need to fear the robots. 

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