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Is the Pandemic Accelerating the ‘Rise of Robots’ and Automation?

Ross Kelly

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pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic is helping boost awareness of cashier-less stores and ‘touchless hospitality’.

The coronavirus pandemic appears to be accelerating the “rise of robots” and increased automation in customer-facing industries, a new report claims.

Who Is at Risk‘, published by the Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), warns the pandemic is leading to increased automation of services in industries such as hospitality and retail, which long-term will likely result in widespread job losses.

Similarly, the report notes that automated solutions are proving to be “particularly cost-effective” during a pandemic, as robots and automated systems “don’t require sick pay and don’t need to self-isolate” in the event of exposure to the virus.

“It may sound callous, but these considerations will become increasingly important in an economic downturn,” the report states.

Public concerns over coming into contact with other people are playing a role in hastening the introduction of robots and automated systems, the report suggests.

Since the onset of the pandemic and the introduction of social distancing measures, businesses across the country have been forced to explore new ways of working to safely accommodate customers.

Cashier-less retail outlets, the report explains, stand as a prime example of how future stores may look and operate.

Amazon is expected to open its first Amazon Go store in the UK by the end of 2020. The stores use a combination of cameras and sensors to detect when products are taken from shelves. Customers are also automatically charged for products when they leave a store.

Sainsbury’s is also accelerating the deployment of its SmartShop service system, which allows customers to scan products as they peruse the store and pay via a smartphone app.

Sales through this service increased from 15 percent to 30 percent following the introduction of lockdown measures, the retailer revealed. Additionally, interest in automated or contactless services such as this has increased to such an extent that deployments are now being rapidly accelerated.

Earlier this year, Sainsbury’s former Chief Executive Mike Coupe revealed that recent developments “might have taken three or four years to get to, and it happened in the space of less than six weeks”.

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The pandemic has also accelerated the rise of ‘touchless hospitality’, the report states. This is enabling guests at hotels or venues throughout Asia to keep human interaction to a bare minimum.

Korean tech company Yanolja, for example, has seen a significant increase in demand for its self-service check-in kiosks since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak.

Fabian Wallace-Stephens, report author and senior researcher at the RSA, said: “Covid-19 is accelerating the rise of the robots – with some sectors seeing five years of digital transformation in five months alone – but the government’s response to the pandemic risks us losing many ‘automation-proof’ jobs.

“The arts and entertainment, travel and tourism, and the creative industries, are likely to be important areas for jobs growth in the future, but need more support throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Commenting on the report findings, SBRC Chief Executive Jude McCorry believes that while the pandemic has offered a chance for many businesses to innovate, an unfortunate ‘side effect’ of increased automation will ultimately be job losses.

She says: “It’s no surprise that the Covid-19 pandemic has changed the business environment for the foreseeable future. The RSA report highlights that there has been an enormous amount of digital transformation in recent months, as businesses have been forced to innovate.

“A side effect of this innovation has been increased automation, something which has long been discussed as putting certain job functions and industries at risk.”

Looking ahead, McCorry said businesses will be forced to explore ways of futureproofing their operations and employees. As such, industry and government must focus on re-skilling for workers across the country.

McCorry adds: “Increasing business and employee resilience is the best way to improve the odds of companies surviving the pandemic. The decreasing timescale for developments and disruptions has made it more urgent than ever before.

“Certain industries such as manufacturing, construction, and production will be more at risk than others but, overall, upskilling workers to allow technology to complement their job function rather than compete against them, will help businesses and individuals succeed in the longer term.”

Ross Kelly

Staff Writer

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