An increase in automation, especially in service industries, may prove to be an economic legacy of the pandemic.
Businesses from factories to fast-food outlets to hotels turned to technology last year to keep operations running amid social distancing requirements and contagion fears. Now the outbreak is ebbing in the United States, but the difficulty in hiring workers — at least at the wages that employers are used to paying — is providing new momentum for automation, Ben Casselman reports for The New York Times.
After having trouble finding workers, a Checkers franchisee put in a system from Valyant AI, a Colorado-based start-up that makes voice recognition systems for restaurants, to take drive-through orders. Now customers are greeted by an automated voice designed to understand their orders — including modifications and special requests — suggest add-ons like fries or a shake, and feed the information directly to the kitchen and the cashier.
Self-checkout lanes at grocery stores have reduced the number of cashiers; many stores have simple robots to patrol aisles for spills and check inventory; and warehouses have become increasingly automated. Kroger in April opened a 375,000-square-foot warehouse with more than 1,000 robots that bag groceries for delivery customers. The company is even experimenting with delivering groceries by drone. Other companies in the industry are doing the same.
With air travel off limits, a manufacturer used augmented-reality technology in its factories to bring in experts to help troubleshoot issues at a remote plant.
Technological investments that were made in response to the crisis may contribute to a post-pandemic productivity boom, allowing for higher wages and faster growth. But some economists say the latest wave of automation could eliminate jobs and erode bargaining power, particularly for the lowest-paid workers, in a lasting way.
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