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COVID-19 Stimulates Increase in Automation

COVID-19 Stimulates Increase in Automation
Illustration by Drew Buchanan

Ariel Andres
Contributing Writer

Now that reported COVID-19 cases have surpassed 1.4 million worldwide and businesses are trying to fill the gap left by employees, Andrew Yang’s warning of sweeping large-scale automation seems to be knocking at the door sooner than expected.

In hospitals and medical facilities where the dangers of working closely to the infected are especially pronounced, hospital systems have prompted the increased use of service robots. In the place of humans, a variety of drones and robots have begun roaming hospitals and cities to aid with disinfection and basic testing. 

XAG, a Chinese company that generally produces drones for agriculture, has recently provided the Chinese government with over 370 professional teams and 2,600 of their drones to disinfect large public areas that are prone to rapid spread of the virus. In addition to protecting humans from exposure, the combination of ground and air cleaning allows for a more rapid and complete disinfection process.

Another company putting their robots on the front lines is ZhenRobotics. Their flagship model, the RoboPony, is a self-driving cart that is being sold to hospitals, malls, retailers and more. While patrolling their assigned area, they are able to perform numerous duties such as scanning peoples faces and reminding them to wear masks to carrying groceries.

XAG’s CEO, Liu Zhiyong, has stated that demand for the RoboPony has more than tripled over the past few months, and that number will most likely continue to grow as his company researches disinfection strategies by ultra-violet light.

Illustration by Drew Buchanan

However, the rise in automation isn’t limited to the medical space; automation is affecting jobs closer to home in the form of reshoring. Generally, one of the most well-known and controversial trends in manufacturing is offshoring labor. The reasons for outsourcing these jobs are often due to lower labor and production costs and less regulation.

However, the last decade has seen a reverse in this trend, with the number of manufacturing employees in the United States steadily climbing since 2010. As costs begin to decrease with the help of automation, more and more companies are reshoring manufacturing.

The decreasing costs of labor and production themselves are not the only reasons for reshoring. Companies are realizing the importance of local manufacturing and supply chain integrity, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The issue with becoming so reliant on other countries is that when an international catastrophe occurs, a country that is dependent on others (generally manufacturing giants such as China) cannot provide ample supplies for their own citizens because every other country is focusing all their resources on their own production efforts.

This is evident in the shortages of crucial medical supplies such as gowns and masks that hospitals across the world are seeing. The healthcare system has simply been unable to keep up with the dramatic increase in demand.

All in all, this considerable boost to the rise of automation and the replacement of people with robots begs the question of another idea also floated by Andrew Yang: universal basic income. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act has contributed to the hotly-contested debate that surrounds giving regular income checks to American families every month.

Although the bill itself does not include the terminology “universal basic income,” the COVID-19 pandemic has spurred politicians to discuss its potential applications. Andrew Yang himself has offered $250-$500 grants through his non-profit, Humanity Forward, to individuals affected by the pandemic. This type of aid is important during the pandemic, but might become especially vital for manufacturing workers who cannot work remotely because of the constraints of their industries as well as for workers who might inevitably face lay-offs in favor of cheaper, automated employees.

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