How Covid-19 is bringing the rise of robot co-workers and how New York is responding

Automation typically conjures images of the Jetsons and physical robots, but much of it is happening through software that speeds daily business tasks such as loan-application processing and scheduling meetings. Automation has been growing in the sector for years, but the combination of remote work due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the desire to cut costs has pushed the technologys growth to lightning speed, as described in a speech last month by Patrick Harker, president of the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank.  

The Protective robots are designed to help workers avoid repetitive, time-eating tasks.

Weve been able to take our existing staff and train them into new roles, said Lea Lundquist, vice president of claims at the Indiana company.

Roots Automation was founded by Chaz Perera, former chief transformation officer at AIG, and John Cottongim, former automation director at candy company Mars. Roots bots can handle invoicing, data entry and similar tasks.

The robots cost about $50,000 per year. Machine-learning software allows them to adjust to the daily rhythms of the workplace. If someone is slow to respond by email in the early morning, the bot takes note and holds off on 8:30 a.m. requests. Perera, the companys CEO, said the goal is to create a more human-feeling work bot.

Within 10 years, office environments will be 50% humans and 50% bots, Perera said. We think these bots should be able to learn from you—which is what we naturally do as co-workers.

The giant in software automation is UIPath, which is valued at $10 billion by its investors and was ranked this month by Crains as one of New Yorks largest private companies. UIPath, which is part of the software industry’s robotic process automation sector, is working with a finance team led by JPMorgan Chase to file an initial public offering early next year, Bloomberg reported Friday.

Gartner Research projects global spending on RPA software to grow 20% next year, to $2 billion total.

Everyone will soon be working with a bot or automated machines for some part of their job, said Anna Tavis, who teaches a course on automation at the NYU School of Professional Studies

Job security

The question is whether our new robot co-workers are here to help us or replace us.

Perera predicts an extra job will be created for each role lost because of automation. 

An October report from the World Economic Forum went a step further. It estimated automation technology will displace 85 million workers by 2025, including roles in data entry, bookkeeping and auditing. The report estimated, however, that automation could create 97 million new jobs in the same time frame, focused in the data sciences, digital marketing and software development fields.

New York could see a lot of new jobs because of automation, but it is far from a given that the people losing their job will benefit from that, said Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future. There is going to be an enormous mismatch in skills.

The Manhattan-based think tank estimates that at least 450,000 jobs in New York could be at risk. Thats why the group is calling on both the state and city to invest in workforce training.

We dont have to run scared because of automation, Bowles said, “but we have to be prepared for it.

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