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Robots Once Seen as Job Killers Now Protect Workers From Covid

  • Health and productivity concerns are driving more automation
  • Empty office towers mean fewer janitors and bus drivers too
Travelers wearing protective masks stand next to a robot at Incheon International Airport in Incheon, South Korea.
Travelers wearing protective masks stand next to a robot at Incheon International Airport in Incheon, South Korea.

Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg 

For decades, the attitude of unions and their advocates to increased automation could be summed up in one word: no. They feared that every time a machine was slipped into the workflow, a laborer lost a job.

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced a small but significant shift in that calculation. Because human contact spreads the disease, some machines are now viewed not exclusively as the workers’ enemy but also as their protector. That has accelerated the use of robots this year in a way no one expects to stop, even after the virus is conquered.