Have we managed to get there over the last four years? Are robots unsexy yet? And how has the pandemic changed the trajectory of automation across industries?
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“Are robots really destined to take over restaurant kitchens?” This was the headline of an article published by Eater four years ago. One of the experts interviewed was Siddhartha Srinivasa, at the time professor of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University and currently director of Robotics and AI for Amazon. He said, “I’d love to make robots unsexy. It’s weird to say this, but when something becomes unsexy, it means that it works so well that you don’t have to think about it. You don’t stare at your dishwasher as it washes your dishes in fascination, because you know it’s gonna work every time… I want to get robots to that stage of reliability.
The Covid Effect
The pandemic has had a massive economic impact all over the world, and one of the problems faced by many companies has been keeping their businesses running without putting employees at risk of infection. Many organizations are seeking to remain operational in the short term by automating tasks that would otherwise be carried out by humans. According to Digital Trends, since the start of the pandemic we have seen a significant increase in automation efforts in manufacturing, meat packing, grocery stores and more. In a June survey, 44 percent of corporate financial officers said they were considering more automation in response to coronavirus.
MIT economist David Autor described the economic crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic as “an event that forces automation.” But he added that Covid-19 created a kind of disruption that has forced automation in sectors and activities with a shortage of workers, while at the same time there has been no reduction in demand. This hasn’t taken place in hospitality, where demand has practically disappeared, but it is still present in agriculture and distribution. The latter is being altered by the rapid growth of e-commerce, with more efficient and automated warehouses that can provide better service.
China Leads the Way
China is currently in a unique position to lead the world’s automation economy. Although the country boasts a huge workforce, labor costs have multiplied by 10 over the past 20 years. As the world’s factory, China has a strong incentive to automate its manufacturing sector, which enjoys a solid leadership in high quality products. China is currently the largest and fastest-growing market in the world for industrial robotics, with a 21 percent increase up to $5.4 billion in 2019. This represents one third of global sales. As a result, Chinese companies are developing a significant advantage in terms of learning to work with metallic colleagues.
The reasons behind this Asian dominance are evident: the population has a greater capacity and need for tech adoption. A large percentage of the population will soon be of retirement age, without an equivalent younger demographic to replace it, leading to a pressing need to adopt automation in the short term.
China is well ahead of other countries in restaurant automation. As reported in Bloomberg, in early 2020 UBS Group AG conducted a survey of over 13,000 consumers in different countries and found that 64 percent of Chinese participants had ordered meals through their phones at least once a week, compared to a mere 17 percent in the US. As digital ordering gains ground, robot waiters and chefs are likely not far behind. The West harbors a mistrust towards non-humans that the East does not.
The Robot Evolution
The pandemic was a perfect excuse for robots to replace us. But despite the hype around this idea, robots have mostly disappointed during the pandemic.
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Just over 66 different kinds of “social” robots have been piloted in hospitals, health centers, airports, office buildings, and other public and private spaces in response to the pandemic, according to a study from researchers at Pompeu Fabra University (Barcelona, Spain). Their survey looked at 195 robot deployments across 35 countries including China, the US, Thailand, and Hong Kong.
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