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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.

The role of the public library has evolved over time. As we move online at an even faster rate, knowledge, entertainment and opportunities for education and employment are found on the internet. Those living in well-connected, affluent places may have come to take internet access for granted. But there is a digital divide in the U.S. that has left people at a disadvantage – particularly since the arrival of COVID-19.

Finding ways to overcome that divide in a sustainable, community-led way could help bring the benefits of the internet to those who need it most. One solution is to use technologies such as TV white space to facilitate wireless broadband – as Microsoft's Airband Initiative is doing. To read more about Microsoft's work with public libraries, visit Microsoft On The Issues.

Who does Vladimir Putin want to win the US election? Given the Kremlin's well-documented efforts to sway the 2016 vote in Donald Trump's favor, it's certainly a fair question. And while there's no solid evidence that Russian interference had any decisive effect on the outcome four years ago, the Trump administration itself says the Kremlin — and others — are now trying to mess with the election again.

So let's put you in Vladimir Putin's size 9 shoes as you weigh up Donald Trump vs Joe Biden while refreshing your own personal PyatTridsatVosem (FiveThirtyEight) up there in the Kremlin.

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Less than a week out from Election Day, 66 million Americans have already cast their ballots, and many of those are people who are voting "early" for the first time because of the pandemic. In fact, the early vote total alone this year is already equal to nearly half of all ballots cast in the 2016 general election, suggesting that 2020 turnout could reach historic levels. Most important, however, is how things are playing out in key battleground states where the outcome of the US election will be determined. In Texas, for instance, a huge surge in early voting by Democrats this year has raised the possibility that a state which has been won by Republican candidates since 1976 could now be up for grabs. Here we take a look at early voting in battleground states in 2020 as compared to 2016.

In a national referendum on Sunday, Chileans overwhelmingly voted in favor of a new constitution. But, why are people in this oasis of political stability and steady economic growth in South America willing to undo the bedrock of the system that has allowed Chile to prosper for so long?

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Ian Bremmer discusses the World In (more than) 60 Seconds:

One week before the US election. What do other world leaders want to happen?

Well, I mean, let's face it. Outside the United States, most of the world's leaders would prefer to see the back of Trump. An America first policy was not exactly made for non-Americans. That was not the intended demographic audience. Trump doesn't really care. In fact, to a degree, it's kind of a selling point that a lot of foreign leaders don't want Trump. It's showing that Trump is strong in negotiations and indeed is doing better for the American people.

That's largely BS, but occasionally it's true. I mean, his willingness to use American power to force the Mexican government to actually tighten up on Mexico's Southern border and stop immigration from coming through. AMLO would have much rather that not have happened, but the fact that it did was an America first policy, that rebounded to the benefits of the United States. And there are other examples of that. But generally speaking, it would be better for the US long-term, and for the world, if we had more harmonious, smoother relations with other countries around the world, certainly pretty much all the Europeans would much rather see Trump lose. The United Kingdom is the significant exception given the nature of Brexit, and the fact that Trump has been in favor of that, like being called Mr. Brexit by five or six Brits or however many did.

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