• Gregory Nichols

Robotics, Autonomous Systems, and Automation in a Post-Coronavirus Era

Well, it makes sense...doesn't it?

Citizens of most counties in the world are being ordered or urged to stay in their homes. Non-critical workers are not reporting for duty or are teleworking. Manufacturers are converting their production floors to layouts that can create critical items, like ventilators and face masks. No one has any idea when we'll return to somewhat of a normal schedule. No one is minding the store, literally. Everything is contaminated, and people run the risk of getting sick if they go almost anywhere. We are all trapped and can't escape. Life has come to a standstill. What do we do?


So, yes, for years our jobs, or livelihood, or technology, has slowly become more and more automated. From home assistants to artificial intelligence to factory robots and Roombas, everyday life is less managed by humans. But, I think we can all agree that this little stint of Covid-19 has certainly paved the way for more automation.

Robots don't get sick, at least not the way humans do. While there is a chance of hackers infecting Internet-connected devices, that can be mitigated a lot easier than hospitalizing a person. Robots make excellent proxies for disinfecting contaminated areas. Think about the robots used during the Fukushima disaster...if the radiation didn't fry their circuits, it would have been perfect. Biological viruses don't affect robots. DARPA and other agencies have already began researching ways to utilize robots in disaster repose scenarios, so it's already happening. The current situation will accelerate that trend.

Robots and autonomous systems work even when people don't or can't. So, if people can't get to factories, then that's ok. Autonomous systems, sensor-controlled machines, and the like are already deployed in the automotive and aerospace industries. Cyber-Physical systems are already used for critical functions like flood control. Think about the toll that Covid-19 has taken from 2 perspectives: workers who can't physically go to work because of a shelter in place order, and critical workers who become ill and can't make it, thus diminishing the available workforce. Send in the bots!


What does this mean if we have more robots and autonomous systems working and less people on the job. Well, that's where it gets dicey. Yes, people may be safer and tasks get done, but there are some issues:

1. Less jobs - so yes, more robots equal less jobs for people. This could obviously lead to mass unemployment, economic instability, mass hysteria, and rioting. But, we're already seeing mass unemployment due to Covid-19, and so far there haven't ben any riots. So, likely, we'll have to look at ways to offset this. Universal income, shifts in job types, retraining. Remember, there were a signifanct number of elevator operators at some point. That position hasn't existed for years, and yet we have more people working than ever...and still using elevators.

2. Security - so, more electronic things and more internet-connected things means a greater chance of hackers accessing and disrupting systems. We'll need to strengthen cybersecurity protocols, develop new frameworks, train a whole new type of workforce, etc.

3. Cultural shift - if people aren't working as much, they'll get bored...or will they? This change of pace with Covid-19 is already leading to more people caring for their houses and yards more than they ever have, playing games with their children, talking walks in the park (socially isolated as course), and probably a myriad of other activities. People will have a demand, a need, and a natural curiosity for different things to occupy them. With an unlikely immediate return to stadiums, arenas, and restaurants, there is an open door for giving the masses their bread and circuses.

So, it's not all bad, but it's going to take a while to see how the world responds and what the future holds after surviving Covid-19. But, our friends, the bots, have been here and will overwhelmingly come to the rescue more and more in the future.Let's be ready for the change in paradigm.

GP Nichols & Company is a boutique consulting firm focused on providing information related to emerging technologies. find out more at www.gpncompany.com and on social media.

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