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Do we need humans for that job? Automation booms after COVID

by Mary Sewell

Ask for a roast beef sandwich at an Arby’s drive-thru east of Los Angeles, and you may be talking to Tori — an artificially intelligent voice assistant that will take your order and send it to the line cooks. “It doesn’t call sick,” says Amir Siddiqi, whose family installed the AI voice at Arby’s franchise this year in Ontario, California. “It doesn’t get corona. And the reliability of it is great.” The pandemic didn’t just threaten Americans’ health when it slammed the U.S. in 2020 — it may also have posed a long-term threat to many of their jobs. Faced with worker shortages and higher labor costs, companies automate service sector jobs that economists once considered safe, assuming that machines couldn’t quickly provide the human contact they believed customers would demand.

Experience suggests that such automation waves eventually create more jobs than they destroy. They also disproportionately wipe out less-skilled jobs that many low-income workers depend on. The resulting growing pains for the U.S. economy could be severe. Siddiqi probably wouldn’t have bothered investing in new technology that could alienate existing employees and some customers if not for the pandemic. But it’s gone smoothly; he says: “Basically, there are fewer people needed, but those folks are now working in the kitchen and other areas.”

Ideally, automation can redeploy workers into better and more exciting work, so long as they can get the appropriate technical training, says Johannes Moenius, an economist at the University of Redlands. But although that’s happening now, it’s not moving quickly enough, he says. Worse, an entire class of service jobs created when manufacturing began to deploy more automation may now be at risk. “The robots escaped the manufacturing sector and went into the much larger service sector,” he says. “I regarded contact jobs as safe. I was completely taken by surprise.”


Improvements in robot technology allow machines to do many tasks that previously required people — tossing pizza dough, transporting hospital linens, inspecting gauges and sporting goods. The pandemic accelerated their adoption. Robots, after all, can’t get sick or spread disease. Nor do they request time off to handle unexpected childcare emergencies. Economists at the International Monetary Fund found that past pandemics had encouraged firms to invest in machines in ways that could boost productivity — but also kill low-skill jobs. “Our results suggest that the concerns about the rise of the robots amid the COVID-19 pandemic seem justified,” they wrote in a January paper.

The consequences could fall most heavily on the less-educated women who disproportionately occupy the low- and mid-wage jobs most exposed to automation and viral infections. Those jobs include sales clerks, administrative assistants, cashiers and aides in hospitals, and those who care for the sick and elderly. Employers seem eager to bring on the machines. Last year’s nonprofit World Economic Forum survey found that 43% of companies planned to reduce their workforce due to new technology. Since the second quarter of 2020, business investment in equipment has grown 26%, more than twice as fast as the overall economy.

According to the International Federation of Robotics, a trade group, the fastest growth is expected in the roving machines that clean the floors of supermarkets, hospitals, and warehouses. The same group also expects an uptick in sales of robots that provide shoppers with information or deliver room service orders in hotels. Restaurants have been among the most visible robot adopters. In late August, the salad chain Sweetgreen announced it was buying kitchen robotics startup Spyce, which makes a machine that cooks up vegetables and grains and spouts them into bowls.

It’s not just robots, either — software and AI-powered services are also on the rise. Starbucks has been automating the behind-the-scenes work of keeping track of a store’s inventory. More stores have moved to self-checkout. Scott Lawton, CEO of the Arlington, Virginia-based restaurant chain Bartaco, was having trouble last fall getting servers to return to his restaurants when they reopened during the pandemic. So he decided to do without them. With the help of a software firm, his company developed an online ordering and payment system customers could use over their phones. Diners now scan a barcode at the center of each table to access a menu and order their food without waiting for a server.

Workers bring food and drinks to their tables. And when they’re done eating, customers pay over their phones and leave. The innovation has shaved the number of staff, but workers aren’t necessarily worse off. Each Bartaco location — there are 21 — now has up to eight assistant managers, roughly double the pre-pandemic total. Many are former servers who roam among the tables to ensure everyone has what they need. They are paid annual salaries starting at $55,000 rather than hourly wages. Tips are now shared among all the other employees, including dishwashers, who typically earn $20 an hour or more, far higher than their pre-pandemic pay. “We don’t have the labor shortages that you’re reading about on the news,” Lawton says.

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