Lee’s famous recipe Chicken, an Ohio fast food chain, hardly seems an obvious place for cutting-edge artificial intelligence. But the company’s drive-thru showcase technology that reveals how the Covid-19 pandemic is accelerating the advance of automation in some workplaces.
Unable to find enough workers, Chuck Cooper, CEO of Lee’s famous chicken recipe, has installed an automated voice system in many places to take orders. The system, developed by Intel and Hi Auto, a voice recognition company, never fails to sell customers fries or a drink, which Cooper says has boosted sales. In points of sale equipped with the voice system, it is no longer necessary for a person to take the controls at the drive-thru window. “He never calls for the sick either,” says Cooper.
Cooper says he believes improved unemployment controls have driven some potential workers away, but he says concerns about exposure to Covid and difficulties in obtaining child care due to the pandemic may also be factors. Still, he said, “There’s no way we’re going back.”
Other employers are also deploying automation for workers during the pandemic. Some restaurants and supermarkets say they can’t find enough new workers to open new locations. Many companies want to rehire workers as quickly as possible, but economists say the technology will stick around, replacing employees in some cases.
History suggests that “automation takes place more quickly during recessions and persists thereafter,” says Daron Acemoglu, economist at MIT. “This should be doubly true today.” Acemoglu says companies are embracing more automation partly because of understaffing, but also because it can help with new security measures and improve efficiency.
This is the case with many meat processors, who adopted the technology early in the pandemic to allow social distancing between workers, according to Jonathan van wyck, partner of the Boston Consulting Group. Today, a labor shortage that is driving wages up is prompting a processor it works with to deploy more machines. He recently installed a camera system that uses AI algorithms to search for foreign objects, such as a glove lost in freshly cut meat; the system will replace at least one worker. “A lot of companies start with an automation process and realize that there are many opportunities in the digital space that are not robotics but can move the needle on the job,” he says. .
David Author, another MIT economist who studies computerization and its impact on the job market, believes Covid has accelerated changes that would almost surely have ended up happening. From now on, they will no longer be seen as something for “the future,” he says.
Robots get a lot of media coverage, but they’re not yet smart enough to take over from humans in food processing factories, kitchens, or restaurants. However, the big fast food chains like McDonald’s were investing in tools like ordering kiosks and new machines to automate more aspects of the kitchen before the pandemic.
Hudson riehle, senior vice president of the National Restaurant Association, says Covid has undoubtedly accelerated this trend. He says many restaurants are using technology to reorganize workers, as part of a long-term move towards greater use of automation.
“During the pandemic, more and more operators have stepped up their investments in technology” that automates specific tasks, says Riehle. “The first is the order and the payment.”
A massive shift to delivery and virtual kitchens triggered by the pandemic may mean some restaurants and customers will be more willing to use technology that once seemed unknown. Using an app to order at a restaurant table could mean that eventually, fewer waiters will be needed.
Other industries, including retail and hospitality, have also been disrupted by the pandemic. But tracking the use of AI in the economy is difficult, because technology can’t just step in for workers in most cases, and because different jobs, in different industries, tend to be automatable from different manners.
Sam ransbotham, a professor at Boston College, studied business adoption of AI during the pandemic. In a report to be released later this year, Ransbotham says he and his colleagues have found widespread adoption of the technology in response to the pandemic. Typically, he says, this involves automating specific tasks rather than wholesale replacement of workers.