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Aside from staying alive and healthy, the biggest concern most people have during the pandemic is the future of their jobs. Unemployment in the U.S. has skyrocketed, from 5.8 million in February 2020 to 16.3 million in July 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But it’s not only the lost jobs that are reshaping work in the wake of COVID-19; the nature of many of the remaining jobs has changed, as remote work becomes the norm. And in the midst of it all, automation has become potentially a threat to some workers and a salvation to others.
In our upcoming special issue, titled “Automation and jobs in the new normal,” we examine this tension and explore the good, bad, and unknown of how automation could affect jobs in the immediate and near future.
Prevailing wisdom says that the wave of new AI-powered automation will follow the same pattern as other technological leaps: They’ll kill off some jobs but create new (and potentially better) ones. But it’s unclear whether that will hold true this time around. Complicating matters is that at a time when workplace safety has to do with limiting the spread of a deadly virus, automation can play a role in reducing the number of people who are working shoulder-to-shoulder — keeping workers safe, but also eliminating jobs.
We’ll look at the sorts of jobs that automation may create, which ones it could eliminate, and how it may reshape certain fields. The shipping industry is not a field that many people think of as ripe for automation, but it’s one where autonomous ships and remote pilots could grow in importance. Another seemingly unlikely target is the meatpacking industry, which turns out to be a hotbed of COVID-19 spread and might need automation both to keep workers safe and to keep the business operational. Meanwhile, as millions of workers abandon their office buildings and begin to work from home, there’s a growing possibility of teleoperators who can remotely support all manner of “autonomous” machines or robots, from simple maintenance to taking manual control when the need arises.
Even as automation creates exciting new opportunities, it’s important to bear in mind that those opportunities will not be distributed equally. Some jobs are more vulnerable to automation than others, and uneven access to reskilling and other crucial factors will mean that some workers will be left behind.
The wave of robotics and automation was already coming, thanks in part to developments in AI technologies like computer vision and machine learning. But the pandemic accelerated the need for some of these new technologies — and also complicated matters by creating high unemployment, radically altered workplaces, and the need for more automation-based safety measures at work.
The new normal has yet to arrive — we’re in a sort of terrible “abnormal” limbo — but when the pandemic subsides, automation will have played a large role in reshaping work around the world.
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