Covid hastened the trend to automate. Are we ready for the rise of the job-killing robots?

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Photo by Maximalfocus on Unsplash.

COVID19 changed some things forever and calcified others. Some trends were revealed, others were hastened; still others were arrested completely, at least for the foreseeable future.

Wouldn’t it have been nice to know, two years ago in February of 2020, exactly how much, and in what ways, the coming pandemic would upend all our lives?

Economists call things like COVID19 “Black Swan Events”- such an unusual event defies anyone’s capacity to predict it.

Still, there were financial winners and losers during the course of mankind’s battle with the novel coronavirus thus far.

The ten wealthiest men in the world doubled their wealth during COVID19, according to Oxfam, much to the chagrin of a world grappling with an already astronomical wealth gap between the have-everythings and the have-nothings.

The hospitality industry, with all its attendant restaurants, hotels, and cancelled corporate conventions suffered spectacular losses, as did the entertainment industry.

In the aftermath, it seems clear some covid mitigation measures will have consequences as hard to bear in the long-term as the virus itself.

Public school closures were an unmitigated disaster in retrospect. Covid restrictions, often illogical and unevenly applied, have had a number of unfortunate side effects.

One of those side effects has been a massive staffing shortage impacting everything from local pharmacy hours to the skyrocketing price of new cars.

Nothing happens in a vacuum: Every domino of fallout from covid hits the next domino going down.

But even as staff shortages cause shipping delays, big box retailers and American companies are looking for an alternative, a workaround. And just as importers are looking for faster ways to get their goods, companies are eagerly trying to innovate their way out of the staffing shortage.

Paying employees has always been one of the biggest overhead expenses for a company anyway; salaries, benefits, insurance. Employees everywhere might have already noticed: Most companies hire as few employees as they can get by with, or as many as they can afford. Finding ways to streamline processes, outsourcing to save money; when one company merges with another, one of the first things it usually does is analyze the roster for redundancies and waste.

The bottom line is that employers didn’t need much incentive to start looking for ways to replace human employees with technology.

One of the reasons so many businesses have been reluctant to automate, even when appropriate, has been the dread of customer pushback. Since covid, however, minimizing contact between employees and the public has become a matter of great to concern to businesses and customers, mitigating this risk.

To deal with this issue plus staffing shortages, McDonald’s is moving towards an all-automated system for ordering. Cashiers at fast-food restaurants may soon be a relic of our pre-covid past.

At White Castle, corporate management is going a step further. Flippy 2 is an advanced robotic employee hired to flip burgers and “man” the fry station, leaving its human coworkers free to, “focus on creating memorable moments for customers.”

As if seeing a disembodied, burger-flipping robot arm isn’t memorable enough.

Where one fast food giant goes, more will follow.

In China, authorities are already using an advanced AI system to prosecute commonly committed crimes. For things like fraud and even political dissent, an AI barrister “System 206” can now legally file charges and pursue justice for the state.

Hollywood is soon to be overrun by robots, futuristic machines and advanced learning algorithms- and not just from Terminator reboots.

Fans of the Star Wars series spinoff featuring the character Boba Fett might have noticed something a bit odd about the new season. One of the new series characters meets one of the original Star Wars characters, Luke Skywalker played by actor Mark Hamill, looking about 18.

Which is very odd indeed considering Mark Hamill hasn’t looked 18 since 1978. Rather than cast a younger Mark Hamill lookalike to play the character, however, Disney producers went with…Mark Hamill.

Or at least, they used advanced CGI techniques to generate an excellent facsimile of 18-year old Luke Skywalker/Mark Hamill to act the part.

It was odd because the creators of human-like robots and CGI have a benchmark which they have not yet met. The Uncanny Valley is an abyss that remains uncrossed.

The Uncanny Valley refers to that feeling we humans get when we look at a face that is almost, but not quite, human. The closer it is to looking like a real human face without actually being one, the weirder we tend to feel about it.

Robots with almost human-like faces give us the “creeps”. Computer-generated Mark Hamill was creepy in that way. There is something off- about the eyes, the movement of the mouth, the set of the jaw- and we can sense it.

Perhaps it is a failure to recreate all the millions of micro-movements our heads, faces and bodies are constantly producing.

With every beat of our hearts, our cheeks and faces flush with color; with every breath, our heads bobble around a bit. Though our brains helpfully filter out this information when we look at each other or look in a mirror, video equipment sensitive enough to record these constant micro-movements now exists.

Even if we aren’t consciously aware of micro-movements, subconsciously, we might notice a “human being” not exhibiting them. Picking up on micro-movements, subconsciously detecting things like subtle blushes, held breath, or a rapid heartbeat are probably why we sometimes know when someone is lying to us.

It could be for this reason that something about the CGI Mark Hamill seemed flat and dead-eyed. There was something odd about watching “it” walk and talk and interact. It’s not a man; it’s not even a man pretending to be another man. It’s a computer generated image pretending to be a man pretending to be another man and it showed.

Eventually, however, Hollywood will get it right. The Uncanny Valley will be surmounted by a computer generated on-screen human so real, so lifelike, no one will be able to tell the difference.

When that happens, every movie studio in Hollywood will cut their bottom line by producing at least some movies without real actors.

Automation and computers are replacing factory workers, cashiers and fry cooks, but they could also come to replace jobs like lawyer, actor and traffic cop.

Some futurists have predicted that 70% of the jobs available today won’t exist in 10 years. That was before covid.

Giving the rising trend to automate, we might see a radically altered landscape for human workers in 5 years.

Are we ready?

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)