As COVID-19 spread across the world, causing global lockdowns and record volatility in financial markets, investors have seen equity markets tumble more than 30%, unprecedented policy responses from central banks, and oil futures trade negative.

One investment theme that may merit the attention of investors is a sector of the technology industry that appears likely to have an important role to play in the fight against COVID-19 – Robotics and Artificial Intelligence (A.I.).

The field of robotics has seen increased applications since the pandemic began, with robots being used to assist in the fields of retail and consumer products, healthcare and aged care facilities. While the subject of robots entering the workforce has been discussed at length, the argument now has another dimension – will COVID-19 speed up the use of robots in the workplace? Further, A.I. is shaping up to play a key role in the detection of outbreaks and development of a vaccine.

Retail and robots

As the world entered lockdown, e-commerce took centre stage. Even before the pandemic, retailers were under increased pressure to satisfy the growing demands of consumers and outperform their counterparts in a fiercely competitive industry. Popular retail and digital marketing platform Listark, combining the data of over 850 US e-commerce stores, calculated a 28% increase in revenue since the U.S. entered a state of emergency.

U.S. retail eCommerce revenue

Source: Listark, 30 April 2020

In order to manage this demand, retailers such as Amazon and Walmart have increased their usage of robots in their warehouses, not only to ensure acceptable levels of hygiene/social distancing, but also to assist with the management of inventory scanning, materials handling, and cleaning.

Looking at the future use of robots, a report by McKinsey, titled The future of the last mile, estimated that autonomous vehicles will make up 85% of deliveries by 2025. Further, the Retail Analytics Council has predicted that the speed at which robots are deployed into the retail sector will increase due to COVID-19.

Health and aged care robotics developments

The pressure that hospitals and healthcare workers are currently under due to COVID-19 cannot be overstated. In helping them battle the virus, robots have emerged as an ally on the front line. 

In South Korea, robots are being used to take patients’ temperatures, and more broadly they are being used to disinfect hospital corridors and are helping healthcare workers manage routine tasks so they can spend more time with sick patients. 

Further reports have noted that robots are delivering meals to people following public health orders to stay at home.

Another area where robots have proved invaluable during this crisis has been in aged care facilities. In order to ‘flatten the curve’, social distancing has been employed, and as result, those that are more susceptible to the virus, such as the elderly, have seen a sharp decline in social interaction. A recent report by NASDAQ highlighted the numbers of elderly who live alone and how limited social interaction can exacerbate mental health issues. Technology can be used to potentially assist in combatting these issues through ‘social robotics’ designed to interact with the elderly and isolated persons.

The innovation of social robotics has led many professionals in the field to claim that “the impact of COVID-19 may drive further research in robotics to address risks of infectious disease”. While robotics in healthcare has been developing for a number of years and is proving its worth during this period of upheaval, robotics has found a new catalyst for growth in improving the social conditions of those isolated.

Source: R. Murphy, V. Gandudi, Texas A&M; J. Adams, Centre for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue, CC BY-ND

Using Artificial Intelligence to combat pandemics

The benefits of deploying A.I. more broadly since the outbreak of the coronavirus are quickly becoming more apparent. This is due not only to its potential ability to speed up drug discovery and development, but also to its ability to detect future outbreaks.

An example of this was a warning sent out by the Canadian artificial intelligence platform Blue Dot on 31 December 2019. The company, which uses natural language processing and machine learning to cull and analyse data from hundreds of thousands of sources, sent a warning to its customers to avoid Wuhan. BlueDot was also able, using information like global airline ticketing data, to identify the cities that were highly connected to Wuhan, and therefore anticipate where the infected might be traveling. Their warning was issued nine days before the World Health Organisation released its statement alerting people to the emergence of a novel coronavirus.

This highlights the ability of A.I. algorithms to sift through the massive amounts of data available and potentially recognise anomalies before outbreaks reach pandemic status.

Additionally, A.I. has the potential to assist with the development of a vaccine. While the ethical dilemmas of using A.I. to combat pandemics are important to understand, COVID-19 has given A.I. a platform to highlight it can be a ‘force for good’. For example, Chinese tech giant Baidu has developed an algorithm which has the ability to analyse the biological structure of COVID-19 and thus help scientists develop a vaccine.

The future response to pandemics

With COVID-19 at pandemic levels, countries globally have begun to rely heavily on the use of robotics and A.I. to combat the virus. As a result, these sectors have become heavily entwined with the fields of retail and health care, and by all accounts will see their development occur at a more rapid pace. While it will be important to monitor this development from a social standpoint, the pandemic has opened up an incredible opportunity for the advancement, use and deployment of robotics and A.I.

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