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Robots from 1970s cartoons and movies will be the reality of 2020. None of us know what the lasting effects of COVID will be, but there is one area where we can draw some conclusions:

The pandemic has sparked massive investment and development in artificial intelligence and will have far-reaching effects on the US workforce.

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I first saw it when I visited a factory where a company was packaging pharmaceuticals. Due to a rise in COVID infections, the factory was closed to workers for several weeks at a time during the winter, when its medicines were most needed. Remarkably, the factory continued to function without humans on the factory floor.

US economy increased by 194 thousand jobs in September, not estimated

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Artificial intelligence-enabled robots using a laser 3-D printer continue to produce, store and manage the packaging process. Humans working from home could inspect factory floors by video and remote control robots whenever they needed to be involved, which was not often the case. People were able to direct a second set of robots to pick up packages, label them, and dock them for delivery without a single human setting foot in the factory.

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What I saw was not a scene from a science fiction movie. This is becoming more and more common in factories around the world and is happening at a pace that has accelerated since the onset of COVID.

In the months after COVID hit, CEOs ramped up their investments in technology. This meant more than just holding meetings over video, it also meant moving the ability to manage the company out of the office and into the cloud. That means a huge investment in the kind of artificial intelligence I saw in that pharmaceutical packaging factory.

Corporate investment in AI has grown to more than $70 billion annually, up from less than $50 billion before the pandemic.

There is a need to move vocational education into the digital age and increasingly focus on technology skills.

There are some big take-aways from this. First, more and more often, when you go to work you are either telling a machine what to do or a machine telling you what to do. We need to make sure that Americans are the masters of technology and not its slaves.

author Alec Rossi

This means that computer science education should not be only for engineers and the elite. Workers on factory floors today are not moving boxes, but operating techniques that control robots that move boxes. The way everyone studies maths, even if you’re going to be an accountant, and everyone reads and writes, even if you don’t grow up to be a journalist, so, can we, too, for our students? Universal computer science education is needed. It also means that there is a need to move vocational education to the digital age and focus more on technology skills.

It also means that communities without super fast and affordable internet connections are further left behind. All these digital factories operate from cloud computing which is enabled by lightning fast internet connections. The way cities died in the 19th century, if they didn’t have a railway station, cities are dying today because they are not on broadband highways. Businesses won’t be found in a location with a slow, expensive Internet connection.

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These tens of billions of dollars in artificial intelligence aren’t just changing jobs on the factory floor. It is changing how we farm. It is changing mining, shipping and construction.

And what we thought was going to happen in five to 10 years, what we now see happening in two or three years is how COVID accelerated technology investment and adoption. We humans have to move to keep pace.