Artificial Intelligence & Automation in a World After The Coronavirus

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The coronavirus pandemic has identified the weakest link in our society – people. Governments and corporations are struggling to keep things going with social distancing and work-from-home programmes being enforced. Very few organizations are set up to operate remotely. Only a few types of organizations like technology companies have managed to maintain a modicum of operation during this unprecedented crisis. 

Meanwhile, critical services like manufacturing, agriculture, logistics and security have been severely impacted, and in most cases, ceased to operate for the duration of lockdowns. These problems stem from the total reliance on people to handle the day-to-day tasks needed to keep the operations running. This has resulted in many organizations contemplating drastic cost reductions, and in many cases, even closure. 

The need for social distancing will continue long after these lockdowns. Most organizations will still have to operate under a different environment to minimize interaction between their staff. This poses many problems for companies where people have to work together in large groups. Companies with some sort of automation in their processes will find it far easier to bring their operations online. The need for automation will be felt by those who rely solely on people to handle their day-to-day operations. 

Technological advancements are the catalyst for greater automation

Recent developments in computing, artificial intelligence, data science and cloud computing offer a whole host of opportunities to build automation technology. Artificial intelligence allows us to build systems which can see and recognize objects like a human and to hear sounds and interpret them as a human would. Advanced sensing technologies like multi-spectral imaging, LIDAR and thermal imaging allow these systems to see and interpret much more than an average human being. 

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With advances in sensing technologies, computers are increasingly getting better at recognizing the world as humans would (Image credits: Analytics Insight)

The basic principles of artificial intelligence and machine learning were developed over 60 years ago. Adoption of the technology has however been slow due to the enormous computing resources needed to run even a simple system. These systems also relied on large amounts of data for training, which was often not readily available. All these problems have been mitigated over the past couple of decades.

Firstly, digitization has led to large amounts of data being generated. Secondly, advances in computer hardware have made machine learning hardware cheaper, more reliable and smaller. Cloud computing also offers a way to build machine learning systems with unlimited processing capability. 

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Advances in cloud computing, IoT, 5G, deployment platforms like drones, and several others have made automation more accessible (Image credits: Green America)

Further, advances in IoT and mobile data communication have allowed electronic devices on the field to run their software in-real-time on these cloud systems. These advances in mobile and cloud computing offer the framework for building systems which can collaborate with each other in real-time autonomously. 

All these technical advancements allow systems with advanced electronics, sensors and actuators to be connected and controlled in real-time by systems in the cloud. Such systems can seamlessly execute advanced artificial intelligence and data science modules to analyze the data in real-time and execute actions. This is what gives machines the power to replicate human abilities. 

The impact of these advancements on industry

Today, we can automate almost any sort of human activity or task. This is applicable to the entire spectrum of the types of jobs, although at different levels of intensity. For example, repetitive and manual jobs like food service and factory work can be automated quite easily. Similarly, cognitive work which is still repetitive, like front office and call centre operations can also be automated using the tools available with machine learning. 

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Today, almost any sort of human activity or task can be automated. But non-repetitive work like those by doctors is harder. But advances in technology have allowed different aspects of these jobs to be automated. (Image credits: New Scientist) 

However, non-repetitive work is a bit harder to automate, but advances in cognitive computing are making building these systems much easier. Examples of such work are those carried out by doctors and engineers. Currently, the focus is not on fully automating these activities. Rather, it’s towards automating certain tasks of such jobs which are repetitive or heavily dependent on data.

Automation will have a big impact on several industries after the coronavirus pandemic. The following are some of the industries which will have the greatest interest in automation over the coming months

Manufacturing

Manufacturing is one of the most severely affected industries by the coronavirus. Most manufacturing organizations rely on humans quite heavily. Practically every aspect of their operations grinds to a halt when the people involved are unavailable. To ensure this problem doesn’t occur again, many companies in this sector will begin exploring how to automate their operations from production right through to supply chain fulfilment. 

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Manufacturing as an industry relies heavily on humans across the entire supply chain. When these people disappear, things grind to a halt. (Image credits: REUTERS)

Digitalization will play a key role in allowing this to happen. A true digital transformation will mean companies will have real-time visibility of their supply chain, manufacturing, and order-fulfilment. Thereby, allowing them to be more flexible during a crisis. Such transformations also entail gaining insights from data to improve the manufacturing process itself. All this requires greater emphasis on the type of data, the quality of the data collected, and systems used to analyse it. 

Greater emphasis will also be placed on robotic manufacturing. This will ensure that manufacturing continues even when the large percentage of the workforce is unavailable. By utilizing artificial intelligence, big data, and IoT it’s possible to build powerful robots, which can carry out tasks on the assembly line faster and better than most humans.

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Having witnessed the coronavirus pandemic bring manufacturing to a sudden halt, organizations will begin placing a greater emphasis on robotic manufacturing and invest in digital transformation to ensure continuity. (Image credits: TMA Illinois) 

Ultimately, the coronavirus pandemic has forced many manufacturers to adapt and work towards responding to crises faster. This change will involve the automation of several aspects of manufacturing so that production can continue regardless of the situation. 

Logistics & Delivery

The global crisis has led to greater demand for logistics and delivery systems. Demand is rising for everything from groceries to medicine. The scaling of these operations is difficult, especially when demand rises suddenly. The automation of logistics and delivery is a complex task and requires the development of a number of disparate subsystems. 

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The automation of logistics is a complex task. But the technology now exists to automate many of its processes. While regulatory restrictions have held back progress, the pandemic may force development to resume (Image credits: DHL)

The technology to automate many of the processes is now available. Robots can be created for order fulfilment using a variety of methods. Many large companies like Amazon already have several facilities that are mostly automated. However, the difficulty lies in automating the delivery process. The technology exists to get packages from a warehouse to your doorstep without human intervention. However, the inhibiting factor is regulation. 

Companies that began working on autonomous delivery systems have slowed down development. Often the reason is due to uncertainties of the regulations which will be imposed upon them. But with the coronavirus pandemic, the demand for contactless deliveries has surged. This could prompt governments to revisit and accelerate regulatory approval for automated deliveries. 

Healthcare

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Following the COVID-19 outbreak, hospitals in Wuhan began utilizing robots to deliver medicines. The demand for autonomous monitoring and other technologies is expected to increase in the healthcare industry (Image credits: CGTN)

The demand for systems which can autonomously and remotely monitor the health of individuals has never been higher. Wearable devices connected to the internet can monitor a whole host of biometrics. Further, there have been advances towards embedding biometric sensors into normal clothing. Such devices can be paired with applications for monitoring the health of individuals. Over time, they will become more specialized and cater to the needs of specific target groups like the elderly or cancer patients.

Furthermore, robots too can play a strong supporting role in healthcare. Modern robots are capable of conducting surgeries with millimetre precision. As such, there are several other simpler roles robots can perform as well. These include patient care, transporting meals and medication, even managing the disposal of biowaste and garbage. Sanitization is also an ideal application for a smart robot. Automated sanitization systems are an ideal way to ensure work environments are safe for workers. 

Retail

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Due to the pandemic, retailers are expected to begin exploring new ways of ensuring social distancing. Self-checkout counters and others will likely be among the measures adopted. (Image credits: Vox Media)

It’s no secret that retail has been adversely affected by the coronavirus pandemic. The ramifications of the lockdowns have been felt by both small and large retailers. Especially since consumers have shifted towards purchasing groceries and other essentials over the internet. Existing and future needs for social distancing will only accelerate this trend and lead towards the automation of retail. 

From checkout kiosks to labour-intensive tasks like stacking and packing, the technology exists to automate all levels of retail.  However, the development and deployment of these technologies can be costly and time-consuming. Yet, with the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, the situation may serve as a catalyst for retailers to explore greater levels of automation. 

Security

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The security industry has been reliant on human labour for years. But the prevalence of drones and advances in AI allows the surveillance aspect of security to be carried out either remotely or automated fully. But this is not without privacy concerns. (Image credits: Kin Cheung)

The security industry is another that relies heavily on people and is now dealing with unprecedented challenges due to the pandemic. This is not limited to security personnel assigned to offices and industrial sites. It also includes operations by the security forces and the police, who are now operating at great risk of infection. 

With advances in artificial intelligence, it’s now possible to automate the surveillance aspect of security. This includes the monitoring of sensor feeds like CCTV cameras or drones and motion sensors for activity. AI modules can be developed to monitor these feeds and recognize not only individuals but also what they’re doing. Such systems can be operated remotely, allowing security personnel to operate them from relative safety. 

The value of big data analytics with surveillance to control the coronavirus pandemic has been seen in countries like South Korea and Taiwan. But if we are to learn from these countries, then we must also learn how they protected individual privacy and freedoms. The latter being a critical concern that’s been repeatedly raised for several years. 

Agriculture

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A farmer uses a drone to spray pesticides on a farm in China. Due to the impact of the pandemic on human labour, one can expect the use of such technologies to increase on farms in the years to come. (Image credits: AFP/Getty Images) 

The growing of crops is a tightly controlled process. Fertilizing, watering, harvesting, and many other tasks have to happen at the right time. Any sudden changes can adversely affect the crop. A worst-case scenario of this would be a crop failure. Losing the harvest not only adversely affects farmers but society at large. The demand for food does not change even during an emergency. 

Work towards automating agricultural processes has been ongoing for several years, even in Sri Lanka. However, recent advances in AI, big data, and robotics have allowed us to finally automate tasks that were challenging only a few years ago. Today, you’ll find drones used in planting seeds, watering crops, and spraying pesticides. Further, big data analytics can also be utilized to forecast crop yields and advise farmers on how to optimize their operations. 

As Sri Lanka learned early on, ensuring a steady supply of food is crucial during a crisis. Several other countries too have learned this less. Some even halted exports to ensure their own citizens have enough to eat. The flaws in the system identified by the coronavirus pandemic will force countries and companies to expand their farming operations. Automation will play a key role here as well. 

The focus towards automation will intensify

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Despite their best efforts, plans to automate aspects of several industries have been lost in pilot programmes. The coronavirus pandemic may give them a much-needed boost to progress. (Image credits: World Positive)

Over the years, there have been several efforts by various companies to automate processes across industries. Alas, many of these efforts were lost in pilot programmes and prototypes. Unsurprisingly, such efforts did not yield the expected results of better performance. The world after the coronavirus will force these same companies to approach this with greater focus.

Across industries, increasingly companies are being forced to adapt to a new reality. For some, there’s no choice but to automate if they are to survive. Those that accept this new reality quickly and act on it will have an advantage over their competition. By digitizing and automating themselves, these companies will be more flexible and able to better react to unforeseen circumstances. 

Granted, there is a view among economists that investments in new technology will slow down due to the coronavirus pandemic. Yet, history has shown us that in times of crisis, there is an acceleration of investment into technologies that push boundaries and solve critical problems. The global economic realities of a post-pandemic world will likely do the same for automation.  

Ultimately, industries will explore options to mitigate the impact of a sudden crisis. Whether it be a pandemic, a natural disaster, a tariff war, or otherwise. Companies wish to operate regardless of the situation. Therefore, they are now forced to explore how to do so with minimal human interaction. 

The focus on automation is inevitable. Yet, automation is not easy and this is why many are wary of it. But those who move fast and build systems, which truly make a difference will be the new leaders. The technology is ready. It only needs dedication and a clear focus to begin making an impact.

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