Coronavirus and the robot revolution

Coronavirus and the robot revolution

As COVID-19 continues its global attack, many people are thinking that robots look like a pretty good investment right now.

If you're a company decision-maker spooked by the pandemic's massive disruption of economies and supply chains, greater automation of your production lines has a distinct appeal. Robots don't get paid, demand benefits, commute, take vacation, or go on strike. They also don't take sick leave, ask for PPE, or sneeze on other robots. Also, crucially, you can put robots wherever you like – making it easier to take production back to your home country.


If you're an investor trying not to check the balance on your 401K right now, you might be thinking about how automation can make companies more efficient and more profitable, pushing stock prices higher so that you can retire before you turn 80.

If you're a consumer, you might see new value in transactions that don't include the kind of personal contact that spreads deadly viruses.

For all these reasons, COVID-19 will accelerate a process of automation that was already well underway in many sectors. Research shows that the global financial crisis of 2008-2009 already led to the replacement of many workers with machines.

A few thoughts on the implications….

It won't happen all at once. This kind of change takes lots of investment that businesses won't make at a time when demand for their products is low.

Some jobs are easier to automate than others. Coronavirus doesn't change that, even if it creates economic incentives to think more deeply about what's possible. In the US and Europe, employers will be looking in particular to automate many of the millions of retail, services, and manufacturing jobs that have been vacated in recent weeks.

Overseas jobs will also be a target if pressure to bring production "home" now grows.

New kinds of jobs are coming. History shows that technological change can create more jobs than it kills. But the new jobs are likely to fall into one of two broad categories: digital-age jobs for a digital economy and service jobs that don't pay like they used to. That leaves a lot of people out.

Automation will worsen inequality in wealthy countries. This transition to new forms of work won't come easy. People with skillsets better suited to the digitized workplace will have a much easier time than people expected to develop those skills from scratch. The result could intensify the inequality that has already stoked populism and upended political establishments in so many countries in recent years.

Robots pose a special challenge in emerging markets. Hundreds of millions of jobs are at stake in lower-wage countries that have operated for decades as factories for the world's textiles and light manufacturing industries. The International Labor Organization has warned, for example, that 140 million jobs in Southeast Asia alone are at risk of automation in the next 15 years. That's more than half the region's salaried labor force. And that was before the pandemic created new reasons for companies to turn to robots in order to safeguard their production and supply chains against future disruptions.

In both rich and poor countries, governments better be ready. Lost jobs and greater inequality mean that political leaders better be thinking about ways to rewrite the social contract to help those people who can learn new skills and new jobs, and to support those who can't. Displaced people make trouble in democracies and dictatorship alike.

One last thought….

Robots gets viruses too! Cyber-viruses can be just as virulent as biological ones. (Hey, maybe robots do take sick leave.) If companies move to automate their labor forces, they'll also have to invest massively in cybersecurity to immunize them against hackers.

Vaccines are the best hope to end the COVID-19 pandemic. But rich countries are hogging most of the doses, with more than 83 percent of shots administered to date having gone to residents in high- and upper-middle-income countries. Most poor countries will have to wait years to achieve widespread vaccination, according to one study.

To address this inequity some stakeholders are pushing hard for waivers to intellectual-property (IP) rights through World Trade Organization trade rules so that manufacturers in poorer countries can make their own vaccines locally. India and South Africa have been leading the charge, which would essentially mean that deep-pocketed pharma companies like New York-based Pfizer, for instance, would have to hand over the keys to the kingdom, allowing local companies in New Delhi and Johannesberg to make generic versions of their vaccines.

Unsurprisingly, the debate has gotten fiery, with passionate arguments emerging both for and against.

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Russian president Vladimir Putin on Wednesday threatened an "asymmetrical, rapid, and harsh" response for anyone that dares to cross a "red line" with Russia.

What's the red line? Putin says he'll decide on a case-by-case basis. And the cases at the moment are growing: the US has sanctioned Russia over cyber crimes; Putin critic Alexei Navalny is near death in a Russian prison; the Czechs say Russia blew up a Czech munitions depot; and as many as 120,000 Russian troops are reported to be massing along Russia's border with Eastern Ukraine.

Which is to say: there's potentially a Sol Lewitt's-worth of red lines to ponder now.

Europe has been hit by a green wave in recent years. Green parties in countries as varied as Germany, Belgium, France, Ireland, Finland, and Sweden have made sizable electoral gains, with some now sitting in national governments.

The Green phenomenon seems to be gaining yet more momentum in the lead up to some crucial European elections (Germany, France) in the months ahead. What explains the green shift, and where might this trend be headed?

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More than 930 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine have already been administered globally, and another 1 billion more are expected to be manufactured by the end of May. Most of the manufacturing is concentrated in a small group of countries. While some — like China, for instance — are exporting roughly half of the shots they make, others — mainly the US — are keeping most of the supply for domestic use. Meanwhile, export controls have been a particularly thorny issue in the European Union and India, where governments have come under intense pressure to stop sending vaccines to other parts of the world amid sluggish rollouts at home. We take a look at what the world's top manufacturers are doing with the vaccines they are producing.

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55: EU governments on Wednesday reached a deal to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 55 percent from 1990 levels by the end of the decade. The commitment is in line with the bloc's broader goal of going carbon-neutral by 2050.

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