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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Covid Brings Automation to the Workplace, Killing Some Jobs

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Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken, a fast-food chain in Ohio, hardly seems an obvious venue for cutting-edge artificial intelligence. But the company’s drive-thrus are showcasing technology that reveals how the Covid-19 pandemic is accelerating the creep of automation into some workplaces.

Unable to find enough workers, Chuck Cooper, CEO of Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken, installed an automated voice system in many locations to take orders. The system, developed by Intel and Hi Auto, a voice recognition firm, never fails to upsell customers on fries or a drink, which Cooper says has boosted sales. At outlets with the voice system, there’s no longer a need for a person to take orders at the drive-thru window. “It also never calls in sick,” Cooper says.

Cooper says he thinks enhanced unemployment checks have kept some potential workers away, but he says concerns about exposure to Covid and difficulty getting child care because of the pandemic may also be factors. Still, he says, “There’s no way we’re going back.”

Other employers, too, are deploying automation in place of workers during the pandemic. Some restaurants and supermarkets say they cannot find enough new workers to open new locations. Many businesses are keen to rehire workers as quickly as they can, but economists say the technology will remain, replacing employees in some cases.

History suggests “automation takes place faster during recessions and sticks thereafter,” says Daron Acemoglu, an economist at MIT. “It should be doubly true today.” Acemoglu says companies are adopting more automation partly due to staff shortages but also because it can help with new safety measures, and to improve efficiency.


That’s true of many meat processors, which adopted technology at the start of the pandemic to enable social distancing between workers, says Jonathan Van Wyck, a partner at Boston Consulting Group. Now a labor shortage that is driving up wages is prompting one processor he works with to deploy more machines. It recently installed a camera system that uses AI algorithms to look for foreign objects, such as a stray glove in freshly cut meat; the system will replace at least one worker. “A lot of companies start with an automation process and realize there are lots of opportunities in the digital space that aren’t robotics but can move the needle on labor,” he says.

David Autor, another MIT economist who studies computerization and its impact on the labor market, believes Covid has accelerated changes that almost surely would eventually have occurred. Now they’ll no longer be considered something for “the future,” he says.

Robots get a lot of hype, but they are not yet clever enough to take over from humans in food-processing plants, kitchens, or restaurants. Still, large fast-food chains such as McDonald’s were investing in tools such as ordering kiosks and new machines to automate more aspects of cooking before the pandemic.

Hudson Riehle, senior vice president for the National Restaurant Association, says Covid undoubtedly accelerated this trend. He says many restaurants are using technology to reshuffle workers, part of a long-term move toward more use of automation.

“During the course of the pandemic more operators stepped up their investments in technology” that automates specific tasks, Riehle says. “The top one is ordering and payment.”

A massive shift to delivery and virtual kitchens triggered by the pandemic may mean that some restaurants and some customers will be more willing to use technology that once seemed unfamiliar. Using an app to order at a restaurant table could mean that, eventually, fewer servers will be needed.


Other industries, including retail and hotels, have also been turned upside down by the pandemic. But tracking the use of AI across the economy is difficult, because the technology cannot simply step in for workers in most cases, and because different jobs, in different industries, tend to be automatable in different ways.

Sam Ransbotham, a professor at Boston College, has been studying corporate adoption of AI during the pandemic. In a report to be released later this year, Ransbotham says he and colleagues found widespread adoption of technology in response to the pandemic. Typically, he says, this involves automating specific tasks rather than the wholesale replacement of workers.

Ransbotham notes that during the pandemic Home Depot developed a more sophisticated search tool for its app to offer advice on home projects. With many people unable to visit stores, he says, the company sought to replicate the kind of experience people can get in person. (Home Depot did not respond to a request for comment.)

Ransbotham says the way AI and automation affect employment is rarely simple. He says some businesses are likely to see technology as a poor substitute for real workers and will want to restaff quickly.

The effects of increased automation will be felt unevenly. In a paper last June, economists Casey Warman of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada, and Alex Chernoff of the Bank of Canada, looked at job data from O*Net, a US Department of Labor database of occupation tasks. They considered roles that seemed to be both at high risk from Covid and subject to automation. They found that these are most commonly done by less-educated women.

Warman says it isn’t yet clear how the pandemic is affecting jobs, but recent job data shows that women remain disproportionately affected by unemployment through the past year. Automation may be a factor, Warman says, adding “it is nonetheless consistent with our finding that females are more likely than males to experience job losses from automation during the Covid-19 pandemic.”

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