Could Robots Save Us During the COVID-19 Pandemic?

With COVID-19 keeping us home, it’s finally time to let the robots take over

Working from Home with AI and Robots
Lifewire /  Hugo Lin

The events of the last few weeks sound more and more like the opening chapters of a new dystopian novel. 

  • A pandemic starts quietly (but furiously) in China. It unexpectedly leaps across borders and oceans.
  • Governments move slowly to combat it
  • Millions take sick
  • Society undergoes fundamental sea changes to combat it
  • Humans increasingly avoid contact and stay at home
  • The robots and AI go to work.

 In most dystopian tales, society undergoes some kind of collapse from climate change, war, or disease, and, typically, what’s least affected by all this is technology.

In recent days, I’ve read multiple reports that put technology at the forefront of typical human activities. Some are draconian, others are necessary outgrowths of our inability to leave our homes and come to work.

I don’t know if this is a desired outcome, but it seems, even with the obvious pitfalls and risks, inescapable. Should we accept it and live like this when the pandemic is over?

Robot acrobatics
If robots can do this, they can probably do anything.  Boston Dynamics

Where it Started

Chinese manufacturing is, by most accounts, one of the most automated industries in the world, and yet when the novel Coronavirus first appeared in the Wuhan province it shut down numerous factories and brought production—yes, even at Apple’s Foxconn partner plants—to a halt. Not all companies there were impacted equally. According to CNBC, the Chinese manufacturer CTC Global Plant was already “highly automated” and “machine dominated,” which meant it was less vulnerable to the outbreak.

Even as the outbreak slowed and subsided in China by the beginning of the month, companies were wondering how they could automate further. It’s a question American manufacturers may soon be asking themselves as more workers stay home or are asked to self-isolate.

Tech analyst Patrick Moorhead agrees. The "calculus used to say robots were too expensive, but as we look at the negative impact to businesses from Coronavirus, they're looking a lot less expensive," he told me.

AI Surge

While the U.S. may no longer be the hub of physical manufacturing it once was, there are still hundreds of thousands of tiny factories (there are under 100 with 1,000 or more employees) and there are still massive companies that touch virtually every American. I’m talking about the social media, online content, and ecommerce companies.

Our new stay-home culture means we’re spending more time than ever online on Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram, as well as with platforms like Google Docs, Microsoft’s OneDrive, and Slack. The software that supports these platforms is, in a way, self-sustaining. With the exception of Amazon, which has to deal with physical goods (and uses a lot of warehouse robots alongside humans to do it), it’s all designed to work without a single human pulling a lever or turning a gear.

Facebook Offices
People do work in Facebook's offices, but so do AIs.  Facebook

However, when things go wrong, it’s people that dive in to debug, mop up, and ameliorate.

Objectionable content on any of these platforms (including Amazon, which has seen fake Coronavirus cures) is something that automation can only handle so well. Human editors often have to step in, for instance, on Facebook to decide if something falls outside platform guidelines.

Some of these companies have joined forces to wipe out COVID-19 misinformation on their platforms, but they are still American companies that suffer from the same human workforce drain as everyone else.

Now, in the face of a true, global catastrophe, there is a chance that massive automation could save us.

Facebook’s content review contractors were forced to work in the office for a time because their systems and the delicate nature of their work didn't support working from home. However, COVID-19 restrictions may mean that these people can’t come into the office. Perhaps that’s why a Facebook bot designed to remove misleading content went haywire and basically started blocking all COVID-19 content. The AI just wasn’t quite ready to do a human’s job.

Soon, though, these companies won’t have a choice. In fact, some are already ceding control to the AIs.

Just this week YouTube announced that it might be taking down more videos than normal as, in an effort to protect staff from the pandemic, it turns over content moderation to its AIs.

While some are figuring out how robots and AI can handle the nuts and bolts of daily tasks, others have employed these powerful systems in somewhat more Orwellian ways.

The Israeli government is using location-based information to track current and potential COVID-19 patients. In the U.S., officials are apparently asking tech companies how they can use phone data to monitor the disease's spread and to find out if people are really practicing social distancing. In normal times these actions would raise massive alarm bells. People are concerned, but these are not normal times, so the response has been muted.

So What

We’ve long worried about robots taking our jobs and the AIs launching a Skynet-like apocalypse. Now, in the face of a true, global catastrophe, there is a chance that massive automation could save us. It will be messy as the robots and AIs make numerous, sometimes awful mistakes, but some industries and operations will manage to continue because of it.

Automation of our online systems and services may prove crucial. Without them, we are truly cutoff from the world and each other. And when this is all over, we’ll retake control from the robots and AIs—if they let us.