Before Coronavirus struck, robots were already becoming more common in our daily lives. In little ways, society was being transformed. Dyson Hoovers have become commonplace in households; in healthcare, robot-assisted surgery is now standard; automation in manufacturing continues to dominate. Coronavirus has catalysed this change and has opened the door to robotic innovation. Some experts are saying that social distancing measures may need to be in place until 2021 and robots might be the answer to ease the transition.
In lockdown, high risk people have been unable to see family or friends. This has led to a boom in ‘companionship’ technology. In Belgium, the government has banned visitors from elderly care homes. To help residents stay in contact with friends or relatives, a company called Zorabots lent 60 of its units to care homes across the country. These 1.2-metre-tall robots autonomously move through rooms and provide a platform for people to video chat over.
Loneliness has become a major issue amongst the elderly in the last few years and companionship technology may offer a possible solution. As the Coronavirus crisis rages on, robots will be able to provide safe company to our most vulnerable citizens. If this technology becomes sufficiently normalised, it could be adopted permanently to tackle the loneliness epidemic. There are some fears that it may fully replace human interaction for some people. However, almost everyone who used the Zorabots said that they would prefer to interact face-to-face, so it is more likely to be adopted as one of many ways to tackle loneliness.
In Singapore local authorities have taken to using robotic dogs to enforce social distancing rules. These novel, 4-legged robots are mounted with a camera to monitor how busy parks become and a speaker to announce social distancing rules. There are concerns about privacy, but the government insists that the cameras are not for surveillance.
The European Union is also looking at robots to help them enforce social distancing rules. To help maintain the tourism industry in the upcoming summer, the European Commission proposals say they would like “artificial intelligence and robotics to underpin public health measures”. The specifics of these proposals are still yet to materialise, but it exemplifies how much Coronavirus could normalise the use of robotics in everyday life.
In South Korea – the leading country in robotics innovation – a café has begun using a robot barista to help the business adhere social distancing whilst staying open. The robot takes the order, produces the drinks and brings it to the table; it can produce 60 different types of coffee. South Korea’s future Coronavirus plans are to lift lockdown but maintain social distancing. It is easy to see how these robots could increase in demand as cafes become eager to open whilst keeping to social distancing rules. After the crisis, however, there will be no reason to hire human staff back. As a society, we may fundamentally change due to automation.
In manufacturing, many large corporations have been increasing the use of robots in their warehouses for years. However, Coronavirus may speed this up. Amazon are looking to scale up the use of robots in their warehouses to reduce human contact. On a larger scale, countries that are looking to increase manufacturing capabilities will see automation as the easiest way to ramp up production. Governments will want to reduce their dependence on manpower, and robotics are the answer.
In everyday life, robots can help put distance between people. Automated checkouts, for example, in supermarkets have the possibility of becoming preferable to human contact. People want to know they are safe before going into buildings and the best way to assure that is to reduce the number of people working.
Automation is shifting to the political forefront. In America, high-profile politicians have begun campaigning on platforms expressing a need to adapt society. A study has predicted that 47% of jobs are at a high-risk of decreased employment within the next 25 years due to robotics. Coronavirus has the potential to speed this timeline up. As robotics and automation become more normalised, society may be looking at a greater shift in a shorter time span. Of course, using robotics to protect vulnerable people and maintain social distancing is a positive thing. However, we may be looking at a permanent and fundamental change in society. At the end of the day, it is up to us as a society to decide how much robotics and automation change society.