The machines are not yet ready to take over

Manual workers have long feared that an era of self-driving trucks and fast-food robot servers is about to wipe out their jobs. Today, those same workers are needed across much of the developed world as economies recover from the pandemic, and governments and employers are asking a different question: where are the robots when we need them?

Covid-related lockdowns and travel restrictions have already accelerated automation in warehouses, factories and even restaurants. The political backlash in many wealthy countries against reliance on migrant labor means current shortages of everything from truck drivers and fruit pickers to social workers could survive the post-pandemic rebound .

This is a potential spur for a new cycle of automation – and there are historical precedents. In 1964, the end of the two-decade Bracero program that brought millions of Mexicans to America to do agricultural work was to provide more jobs for American workers. Instead, it sparked a wave of mechanization by farmers.

Yet workers in at least some of the current shortage sectors may not be replaced by robots anytime soon, as their work is still difficult for machines to do and technologies are taking longer than expected to perfect. .

Many advanced manufacturing economies have already taken automation to high levels in sectors where it is most appropriate. The machines are ideal for predictable and repetitive tasks in a controlled environment, such as on production lines. The boom in online shopping during the pandemic has, meanwhile, accelerated the shift to automated order-picking systems. Self-driving truck convoys are already being experimented with and may soon replace drivers, at least on open highways and between fulfillment centers. The technology is far from reproducing complex journeys to supermarkets or downtown gas stations.

It’s trickier to use machines for tasks that require dexterity in irregular environments, cognitive skills, or interaction with an unpredictable real world. Agriculture has long been heavily mechanized in land preparation, seed planting or crop harvesting. But farmers and the food industry still rely on human hands to locate and pick fruit without bruising it, or to debone chickens. The coronavirus has prompted US meat processors to invest in automation, but often deployed alongside humans who still hold the most skilled jobs.

Indeed, it is becoming clear that robots are often best used to augment human skills, not replace them. The automation of support roles should become widespread, including in services. With an aging population and shrinking workforce, Japan is already using robots in nursing homes, schools and offices, as security guards, cleaners or companions for the elderly. Visit a hair salon before too long and you might find a robot sweeping the floor or taking reservations, while humans do the styling.

Another obstacle to automation is that companies and employers who suffer from labor shortages today often operate in highly competitive, low-margin industries – and struggle to raise capital to invest in them. technology. To boost productivity here, governments may need to provide better incentives, for example through subsidies or tax breaks.

A significant number of jobs, however, will remain difficult to automate for the foreseeable future – so filling domestic shortages will mean improving wages and conditions and investing in training. The UK’s post-Brexit Conservative government, among others, says it is committed to doing just that. How much it will cost and its effect on prices is only beginning to become clear.

Letter in response to this article:

Interfering with rates leads to bad trading decisions / By Paul Fuller, Arlington Heights, Illinois, USA

James G. Williams