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Automation and Human Agency

No matter how fast, cheap, or efficient robots are, they cannot compensate for the human ambition, desire, need, and greed that ultimately drive supply and demand. This has been a key lesson of the pandemic, which has underscored the need to leverage technology to enhance human agency.

DUBAI – Nobel laureate Amartya Sen defined human agency as “what a person is free to do and achieve in pursuit of whatever goals or values he or she regards as important.” At a time of mounting fears over artificial intelligence and job-destroying robotics, the COVID-19 crisis is a powerful reminder that, when it comes to driving an economy, there is no substitute for human agency.

Many view the COVID-19 pandemic as a likely catalyst for further automation. By highlighting the vulnerability of human workers and amplifying calls for stronger worker protections and benefits like paid sick leave, the crisis could spur businesses in many industries to invest in robots.

But there is no reason to believe that more robots would have saved the economy from a lockdown-induced COVID-19 recession. Many supply chains were already highly automated, and yet suffered disruptions. Robot-run and human-staffed production plants alike have been shut down. The most robot-intensive industries in some of the countries with the highest robot densities (China, Germany, Japan, South Korea, and the United States) are laying off thousands of workers.

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