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MIT Technology Review

Podcast: Robots are the new recruits on the pandemic’s front lines

Automating certain tasks in hospitals and grocery stores can keep humans out of harm’s way, but could also see many out of a job.

June 17, 2020
Franziska Barczyk

We give robots some pretty scary and stressful jobs: cleaning up nuclear sites, inspecting pipelines from the inside, exploring  the frozen wastes of Mars. The arrival of the coronavirus has transformed more familiar settings, like grocery stores and hospitals, into potentially hazardous environments as well. Erika Hayasaki, a writer and journalism professor in California, learned that the pandemic is leading some organizations to speed up their automation plans in order to aid front-line workers. 

Her feature article appears in the July issue of MIT Technology Review. In this episode of Deep Tech, she describes her reporting on companies in California and Texas that are rushing to meet the demand, and asks whether the new wave of safety-driven automation could ultimately force more human workers into retraining programs.


Show Notes and Links

Covid-19 could accelerate the robot takeover of human jobs, June 17, 2020

A Job Plan for Robots and Humans, June 27, 2017

Amazon’s Investment in Robots is Eliminating Human Jobs, December 5, 2017

How Technology Is Destroying Jobs, June 12, 2013

Full Episode Transcript

Wade Roush: The day when robots show up in your workplace may be closer than you think.

BBC Business News: The robots are coming. Up to 20 million manufacturing jobs around the world could be replaced by robots by 2030. That’s the prediction from Oxford Economics, an analysis firm.

Wade Roush: That’s a BBC News clip from 2019, on one of many studies arguing that robots could soon take millions of jobs away from low-skill factory workers. But robots are also starting to show up in new kinds of workplaces that have nothing to do with manufacturing, like hospitals and grocery stores. And when the coronavirus hit, journalist Erika Hayasaki started to wonder whether the pandemic might speed up that whole process, especially if robots can help out front-line medical workers or reduce the chances that humans will be exposed to the virus. 

Erika Hayasaki: They've been having these conversations for a while. But the pandemic pushed these conversations. For example, the Moxi robot has already been at hospitals. But their plan is to ramp up, moving into the future and really taking a lot of the lessons that we've learned from covid .

Wade Roush: Today on the show, a conversation with Erika about the future of robotics and jobs, at a time when our definition of what makes a job too dirty or too dangerous for human workers are changing fast. I’m Wade Roush, and this is Deep Tech.

[Deep Tech theme]

Erika Hayasaki: I think the driving question is, when will the robots come and take over the jobs? When will we rely on robots more? 

Wade Roush: Erika Hayasaki is a writer and a professor of journalism in Southern California. For the July issue of MIT Technology Review, she reported on companies across the country working to expand the kinds of tasks that can be turned over to robots.

Erika Hayasaki: The pandemic has kind of pushed a lot of these conversations to the forefront and even opened up new conversations around how robots can be used to keep us safer, for example, in the middle of a covid outbreak, from sanitizing to doing certain tasks in hospitals or grocery stores. And then, of course, there's also questions around jobs, and what will happen to people's jobs when this does actually take effect.

Wade Roush: What got you interested in this story?

Erika Hayasaki: I have actually been researching robotics for a while before the pandemic, and I had a chance to visit an Amazon warehouse, which is part of the story. I visited a couple of Amazon warehouses, before covid hit and I was just interested in the robots and I was able to go in and see some of their robots because I was thinking about, what does it look like when robots come into a workplace and how sophisticated can they become? And is there a real threat to jobs if they become more and more advanced? …But then, of course, covid hit. I did reporting on, you know, nursing in hospitals and the situation around the safety of nurses. And just the tasks that they are doing every day can put them in danger, right. 

Wade Roush: But obviously hospitals aren’t the only place where the virus can spread. These days even a trip to the grocery store can feel risky. And robots are turning up there too.

HEC Science & Technology video clip: What is that? That’s the question you’ll hear asked, or at least the expression you’ll see worn on the faces of many shoppers, in a growing number of Schnuck’s grocery stores. That’s right, robots have come to your local grocery.

Wade Roush: A robot named Tally checks the stock on grocery store shelves. It’s made by a San Francisco startup called SimBe Robotics. 

Erika Hayasaki: So Tally, I met at a Schnucks over FaceTime. It was a Schnuck's in St. Louis. Tally's been there already before the pandemic, but I think I describe the robot looking kind of like a tower speaker on wheels. It doesn't have arms or any kind of rotating head or anything like that, and it rolls through the grocery store and literally scans the inventory. And so, customers will kind of run into it and it can detect them when there's a person in front of them and will kind of pause and let them go. There were some interactions where the customer didn't quite know what to do when they ran into the robot. But that robot has been there for a while. So if  people have been shopping there, they're kind of used to it. You know, it's not there talking to you. It's just really just rolling down the aisles and taking note of stock and helping the facility understand, like, what do they need to order? What do they need to stock? What are they out-of-stock of? What are they low on, all of these things?

Wade Roush: Erika also went to the Inland Empire region of California, where she toured an automated Amazon warehouse. Inside these kinds of facilities, the main sound you hear is the whirring of a fleet of squat wheeled robots with names like Kiva, Pegasus, and Xanthus. The robots move mobile shelving units closer to the human workers who pick products from the shelves and assemble them into the boxes that go out to customers.

Erika Hayasaki: So to me, they looked like kind of giant Roombas with shelving on top of them, moving around. Not terribly exciting, you know, and I think for the workers, too, there's a novelty that wears off. You know, I talked to some workers who were excited to work with robots, like they loved the idea of robotics and going into a warehouse where there's robots seemed kind of cool. But pretty quickly, the novelty wears off. The ones that I observed, they were kind of in the middle of this in the center of the warehouse, kind of fenced off. And there was like yellow tape kind of fencing people off. You definitely cannot go into that area where there are the robots, the field.  

Wade Roush: Amazon’s robots can steer clear of humans who enter the field to repair the robots or pick up after them if they spill something. But for safety it’s generally a human-free zone. Finally Erika reported on a hospital assistant robot named Moxi, from an Austin, Texas startup called Diligent Robotics.  

Wade Roush: They already have a couple of these robots actually working inside hospitals. Right. Maybe not in covid-19 wards, but they're working in hospitals. What kinds of tasks do they help with?

Erika Hayasaki: So they're helping primarily with delivering items. You know, medications and different supplies. Transferring things. I mean, that was one of the basic things that the designers realized when they were shadowing nurses. Like, so much time is spent on your feet running from this area of the hospital to this area, to this area. You know, you could really save a lot of time if you weren't the person running all over the hospital trying to get things done. You could be spending that time with patients, really. And so that's a lot of what Moxi is doing, delivering items. Now after covid, Moxi is not in the covid ward, but they're still being careful, of course, in a hospital when there's covid, so they have increased the responsibilities of the robot, like they're delivering a lot of PPE, personal protective wear, masks and gloves and all those items that they need. But there have been discussions about what more Moxi could do after covid. 

Erika Hayasaki: Moxi was,  I guess, the cutest robot that I've met.

Vivian Chu: I can show you really quickly, like the head will move. 

Wade Roush: That’s Vivan Chu, the cofounder and chief technology officer at Diligent Robotics, speaking with Erika on a video call.

Vivian Chu: And the robot can look around, as necessary. This light is actually an IR camera. We have, like, fun faces that the robot can do, that people really like. Heart eyes. Then waving, so you can see some of the arm motion. 

Erika Hayasaki: They designed Moxi to not be so, you know, to be so dull, I guess. I think one of the designers said ‘It is not just a toaster in the corner,’ which it begins to feel like with some of the other robots, like the Amazon robots, perhaps were just moving things around. You know, Moxi has like eyes that kind of light up with soft blue colors or light pink. And I think they turn into hearts at one point. And the neck moves, there's a face. So it doesn't necessarily look like a human body, but there is like a face and a neck. It has arms, it moves around. It makes little neat meeping sounds that are kind of cute, you know. Doesn't have conversations, but there's little things that it says. So it's in a hospital setting. They wanted the robot to be in the background. Not at all for you to mistake that as being in any way human-like. But also just that you notice that the robot’s here and it's kind of pleasant to be around, I guess.

Wade Roush: A lot of listeners might have heard about the three D's of robotics and they seem really relevant here. So can you go over them for us quickly?

Erika Hayasaki: Sure. So there's the dull, the dirty, and the dangerous. You know, these jobs that a lot of people might not love to do because,  you know, you're at risk. They're monotonous, perhaps. And also exposure to potentially getting sick, but just being dirty, like in, you know, in the field. In the trenches.

Wade Roush: And how would you say the pandemic has changed the calculus about what qualifies inside a workplace as dirty or dangerous?

Erika Hayasaki: Germs, like how are we spreading germs, coughing on each other, breathing on each other, speaking to each other, and these germs are coming at us. And so, the people who are thinking about this in robotics, they're thinking about how can they use the robots to sanitize, how can they use robots to clean facilities, hospitals, for example, hospital rooms, disposing of human waste.

Wade Roush: In one way, you would think that giving every dull, dirty or dangerous job that a human does to a robot would be a pretty good thing. Especially if it protects people from getting infected or helps to slow the spread of the pandemic. But your article actually goes a couple of levels deeper than that and asks—I think you're asking when automation is really a good thing, and when we need to start worrying about whether automation is turning into a job killer. From what you said, it sounds like Moxi's makers are very aware of fears that their technology could cost people jobs.

Erika Hayasaki: I mean, what they told me is, when they first started doing their research, they spent a lot of time interviewing health care workers and sitting down with them and asking, what do you need? They really did a lot of listening. And then when they started getting questions, you know, there were some questions like, ‘Wait a minute, are you designing a robot that's going to take our jobs?’ And then they explained, of course, no, that's not what their intention is. And they want to create a robot that will help them do their job. And it's pretty obvious that Moxi, as great as Moxi is, is not doing the work of what the nurses are doing. They're not holding the hands of the covid patients who can't see their families or holding up the, you know, videos and trying to facilitate conversations right now, which is, this is what's happening in covid wards. So it’s pretty obvious, and that’s even before covid, that the robot in that setting cannot replace the human who has the compassion and the ability to have these discussions and to just be a human. When Moxi has been in hospitals, it’s pretty clear to the workers that at least not any time soon, they're not gonna have to worry about Moxi taking over their job.

Wade Roush: Right. I can see that. But maybe just to play out the scenario a little further, if  Moxi is handling things like shuttling supplies back and forth and delivering pills from one floor to another or, you know, taking the place of nurses who would have had to waste time otherwise, just shuttling things around the hospital, it sounds like at some point eventually you would need fewer nurses.

Erika Hayasaki: Yeah. I think with nurses, that's a more complex discussion. Their nurses are not just doing busy work. They're doing a lot of human work. But I think when we get into grocery stores and warehouses and farms and settings like that, you could make that argument more directly. You really can see, like, some of these jobs, they could completely be taken over by a very advanced robot, right? You know, it's one thing for the nurses. But if you're the janitors cleaning the floors, you could see the scenario where robots become the cleaners of the floors and cleaners of the rooms. And that's, that's already happening in hotels. That was happening before covid, you know. Robots being put into large hotels and doing a lot of the cleaning work. Right. So, I mean, I think it depends job by job, but there's a lot of positions that you could see where that would be a risk.

Wade Roush: So it feels like if the pandemic does wind up accelerating the transition to automation, that should also be accelerating the discussion about policy responses and what we should be doing to help those workers who might be displaced. Do you see that happening? And if so, where?

Erika Hayasaki: Yeah, absolutely. So if you think about the region where I visited one of the Amazon centers in the story, that particular region, the Inland Empire in California, has many, many Amazon warehouses now. It is the number one employer of the region. Right. And this is a region that was really devastated in the housing crisis, in the recession, and saw a lot of job growth as warehouses came back. And so a lot of people are dependent on these jobs. This is how they're feeding their families. I've talked to workers. You have this school that's training people to become the robot fixers, the people who are programming the robots. It's a school that looks like it's in a, just a large office building. One of those, you know, suburban office buildings. You walk in, there's a lot of different classrooms. And, some of the machines are able to detect the difference between, as they were explaining to me, like a watermelon or a brick or whatever the different things are coming down the conveyor belt, you know, they can program it to understand the difference between what is what. And then students learning what all the machinery is and how it works and how to put it together, how to program it, to do different things. And so it's pretty interesting. And like I said, they've teamed up with a lot of companies to try to get to have, you know, their employees come into these programs and learn some of these skills.

Wade Roush: From your reporting, do you think there can ever be enough of those kinds of jobs,  programming robots, to make up for the jobs that could be lost through automation?

Erika Hayasaki: That's the question I keep asking people. It doesn't sound like there will be. What will happen then has always been a concern. What will happen to a region where, let's say you have 20,000 workers, in the Inland Empire, for example, 20,000 employees of Amazon. Even if they got rid of 10,000, half of that, that's still 10,000 jobs. People who have to find jobs and other people could be trained to be robot fixers and programmers. But that's still very much a problem. So what then do you do? That's the question.

Wade Roush: Your piece was really incisive and timely. And I want to thank you for talking with me, Erika.

Erika Hayasaki: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

Wade Roush: That’s it for this edition of Deep Tech. This is a podcast we’re making exclusively for subscribers of MIT Technology Review, to help bring alive the ideas our journalists are thinking and writing about.

You can find Erica Hayasaki’s full feature article in the July issue of Technology Review, which also features the TR35. It’s a list of 35 innovators under the age of 35 who are working to make our world better, in fields ranging from quantum computing to humanitarian work. The builders of Moxi, Vivian Chu and Andrea Thomaz, are both past TR35 honorees, and for more than 20 years readers have been looking to our list to find out who’s up and coming in science, engineering, and entrepreneurship, and whose inventions are going to change the world. Check out the whole list at technologyreview.com.

Deep Tech is written and produced by me and edited by Jennifer Strong and Michael Reilly. Our theme is by Titlecard Music and Sound in Boston. I’m Wade Roush. Thanks for listening, and we hope to see you back here in two weeks for our next episode.