July 4, 2022 8:40 AM

Robot Takeover: where to invest as COVID-19 accelerates the replacement of human jobs

One of the side effects of a pandemic is the new urgency it gives to certain matters. With compressed decision making time frames, traditional concerns can be steamrolled by other more pressing considerations. This could have the effect of lowering resistance to machines augmenting and replacing humans in their jobs, potentially leading to an accelerated boom in automation and AI.

/ Published 2 years ago

This picture represent Artificial Intelligence.
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Historically, pandemics have had massive implications for society’s ways of living and getting things done. This health crisis isn’t going to be any different. It has already precipitated or accelerated many changes that will have an enduring effect. At a personal level, many of us have discovered new hobbies or embraced new ways of living and socializing.

Some of the more immediately evident changes are simpler things, like the increased perception of the value of home cooking or homegrown vegetables. At a deeper level, many of us have also changed our psychology and beliefs. Some have embraced new life goals or morals after being thrust into a situation that can promote deep reflection. Others are increasingly anxious about the future now that the fragility of our modern way of life has been exposed.

But the changes which have been prompted and catalysed by the health crisis spread much further than the home and the individual as an autonomous unit. These changes have the potential to disrupt our accepted ways of life in the world of business as well. 

The changing shape of the workforce

Immediately, lockdowns and social distancing measures tore workers from the office and thrust them into remote working arrangements. For many enterprises, this necessitated rapid changes to the structure and methods of their workforce. Collaboration and conferencing tools like Zoom and Slack saw massive growths in their userbases as a consequence.

For the investor, the ship may have already sailed here as the peak of this emerging trend is likely to have been met. While the acclimatization to remote work methods may reduce the necessity of the daily commute in many enterprises, an increasing return to the office is largely to be expected.

Robots robots everywhere

One of the industries to benefit from the pandemic was drones. The need to enforce lockdown restrictions, for example, saw many police departments rapidly adopt drones as tools for surveillance, enabling them to more effectively monitor large areas. The utility of drones in supply chains has also taken on a whole new level of seriousness.

In health care, providers are looking to rapidly increase the applications of robots to improve sanitation measures. Simple applications like sanitation, patient intake and meal dispensing are just some of the areas being innovated in at the moment. By taking humans out of the equation as much as possible, the risk of infections spreading throughout the hospital is much diminished.

Trepidation and protracted deliberation have no place in a state of urgency

One of the biggest changes to occur as a result of the pandemic was the rapidity with which perceptions have shifted in many areas. The trepidation regarding the potential dangers and misuses of drones is now being put into perspective in light of the increased benefits they can bring. Governments globally are now being pressured to fast track or consider new regulatory changes, opening up the possibilities for drone producers and operators to increase their range of applications.

But going beyond drones, some of the biggest changes have been seen in the field of AI. Whereas some of the applications that are now being openly deployed would once have been accused of overstepping privacy boundaries, or even of being creepy, apparent necessity has diminished objections and even seen open acceptance.

While it’s one advance that never quite took off, it’s hard to imagine that the idea of contact tracing would have been given much air had it been introduced before the pandemic. If people had been presented with a technology that was going to be used to monitor every interaction that they had in their daily lives, all for the apparent benefit of monitoring infections, an uproar would likely have been seen. The NSA got a lot of heat when Snowden leaked his collection of documents, and what they were exposed for was, arguably, less creepy than contact tracing.

AI is quickly penetrating the fabric of society

One of the big drivers reducing the reliance on humans to immediately come out of the pandemic is AI. Already there are rapid deployments of AI-powered technologies in a variety of applications. From monitoring crowds for compliance with mask-wearing obligations to remote diagnosis where computers can detect people showing symptoms of COVID-19, the applications are many.

But applications for AI spread far beyond disease monitoring and control, and the need for social distancing is only going to accelerate acceptance of such applications.

Only just last year, surveys of workers and consumers revealed that the presence of robots decreased job satisfaction for workers and made customers feel awkward and uncomfortable. The preference for human interaction rather than the cold clinical dealings with a robot was of primary importance to people.

But despite this, supermarkets had already begun replacing workers with autonomous robots. Ahold Delhaize had already ordered 500 robots for identifying spills in their supermarkets last year. These robots are relatively innocent though, seen as an augmentation rather than a full replacement of humans as their role is just identification. But advances are being made,

and our increasing anxiety over social contact has the potential to accelerate the acceptance of more advanced robots.

Take, for example, Tally, an autonomous robot that scans supermarket isles for inventory shortages and handles replenishment. With a growing acceptance of innovations like Amazon’s cashier-less AI-driven stores, the implementation of such innovations is inevitable in any case. What COVID-19 contributes, however, is an acceleration to this curve.
Applications for AI in other diverse consumer facing technologies are exploding. Creative applications include a new wine subscription service which incorporates an intelligent matching algorithm. This service combines wine delivery from selected wineries with an app where users rank the wines. Based on their preferences, AI learns what wines to send them next.

Growth in AI forecast to be exponential

Even before COVID-19 took hold of our everyday lives, AI was on a rapid upward trajectory. But the pandemic has perhaps boosted the rate of growth to be expected. The growth in robotics will only further drive an acceleration in AI—it is, after all, the intelligence of many robots which makes them more useful than mere remote-controlled toys.

For those looking to jump into AI on the stock market, there are many options available for investors seeking exposure to AI. Looking solely for stocks that have received a boost thanks to immediate applications in the fight against COVID-19 may be a little short-sighted, and focus should be directed to firms that have a broader spread of applications for their technology.

Looking at locally available options, firms like Quisitive Technology Solutions, Inc. (TSXV: QUIS), mCloud Technologies Corp. (TSXV: MCLD) and Shopify (TSX: SHOP) are innovating with AI in ways that are reshaping the face of the workforce, and the supplies and distributions of essential services and goods. Looking at players in the medical space, Perimeter Medical Imaging AI, Inc. (TSXV: PINK) is another promising upstart who has just expanded to list the Frankfurt Stock Exchange a little over two weeks ago under the symbol 4PC.

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(Featured image by Pixabay via Pexels)

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