Source: IEC Blog (

A recent article in Science Robotics suggests that robots could be effective resources in combating COVID-19. Robots can be deployed for disinfection, they are also able to deliver medicine and food, measure vital signs, etc.

While more complicated therapeutic acts, which require judgment and compassion, might not be appropriate, the truth is that the vast majority of medical-related tasks could be accomplished by robots.

More broadly, as workers in factories around the world stay at home, scared of contracting the virus, many manufacturers out there have probably contemplated moving their production lines to full automation. Farmers could use robotic help in their fields or in their greenhouses as the pool of temp workers dries up.

While the pandemic brings the need for robots into sharp focus, it is only accelerating a trend that is already impacting low income jobs, more especially in developed countries. Automatic payment counters have become standard in most shops and supermarkets and people use them without any afterthought.

Robots are ubiquitous in online shopping warehouses, are already used for cleaning and for some agricultural tasks and are even commonplace in fast food restaurants. And the list could go on…

Robots are increasingly expected to do dull, dirty and dangerous work and Covid-19 has put their usefulness under the spotlight. The other side of the coin is unavoidably less jobs for a wide number of people.

One could make an analogy with confinement during the Covid crisis: it may protect workers’ health but at the same time it takes away their livelihood. More qualified jobs are not protected either. Robots can write articles and meet deadlines without fail; They even compete with artists.

IEC is a founding member of the Open Community for Ethics in Autonomous and Intelligent Systems (OCEANIS). This global forum brings together organizations interested in the development and use of standards as means to address ethical matters in autonomous and intelligent systems.

While the issue of biased algorithms is often mentioned on the “ethics” agenda, an even more important one is probably what kind of future do we want. Will work still be at the core of what defines human beings in tomorrow’s societies?

A question that Karl Marx tried to answer in the 19th century but which is again at the centre of today’s zeitgeist – in part thanks to the Corona Virus.


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