AI’s place in the ‘new normal’

COVID-19 has had a severe impact on the global economy as countries around the world went into lockdown. With supply chains disrupted and unemployment rates rising amidst a public health crisis, among the few industries that were significantly impacted are Food & Beverage (F&B), Aviation, Tourism, and Retail.

The pandemic has brought upon changes to our lives in ways that we could not have imagined, as we embrace the ‘new normal,’ working remotely is now a norm, with social distancing measures in place. We are unable to work as we used to with more restrictions kicking in. 

Although economies are slowly beginning to open up, governments are now calling for less reliance on human labor; Industrial 4.0 may have dawned upon us, bringing automation, big data, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) into various industries. A large chunk of the current economy is still very dependent on human beings to function. However, COVID-19 has sped up the need for automation and digitalization more than ever now. 

How do we go about keeping businesses going in a post-pandemic world, and what role will AI take in that reality?

In a bid to survive, agility, scalability, and automation are among the survival skills needed for this new era of business, and those who can adapt to those three keywords will emerge as winners.

AI has been making breakthroughs in various fields, simplifying our lives, allowing us to work more efficiently. While AI and automation are often two terms that are used interchangeably, AI is undeniably the driver of automation. 

An AI-assisted workforce isn’t as far-fetched as one would think. To reduce human contact and the risk of mass infection, companies across various sectors would need to embrace AI earlier than anticipated.  

Industries Affected

A global slowdown does have an impact on the world economy; however, not all industries are equally affected. For example, the service sector, which includes aviation, travel, tourism, and F&B are among the hardest hit. According to a research by S&P Global, airlines have borne the brunt of the pandemic. With countries closing down their borders and travel restrictions in place, airlines experience a severe fall in traffic, leading to more bankruptcy and consolidation across the sector. This, in turn, caused a chain reaction, subsequently affecting the tourism industry. 

The F&B industry faces a double-edged sword, besides a sharp decline in sales and the inability to serve dine-in customers. Additionally, sourcing for fresh ingredients comes as a challenge as well for COVID-19 has also disrupted main food supply chains, as farmers and producers are unable to get their produce to the market, coupled with a labor shortage in factories.   

Besides the service sector, retail is nonetheless affected as more shopping malls are temporarily closed. Even if they do eventually reopen, consumer sentiments would have plummet, and the public would be more conservative with their spending. 

While traditional retail and brick and mortar stores take a plunge in sales and succumb to the effects of COVID-19, an exemption in the retail world is the grocery retailers, as households worldwide continue stocking up their cabinets. 

Implementation of AI solutions 

Before the pandemic, grocery stores had begun implementing AI solutions. The world was getting a glimpse of retail tech in action, especially in the area of inventory and shelf management. 

An example would be Symphony Retail and their shelf analytics, which uses AI-powered prescriptive insights provided by cameras and robots mounted in store. The implementation of these AI solutions allows retailers to have an overview of the shelf and actual product status, and compare product and price information to planograms in real-time. 

Another area in the grocery retail sphere that utilizes AI is cashier-less checkout technologies. Case in point, Accel robotics enables grocers to provide convenient grab-and-go, checkout-free shopping experiences. 

The company’s camera-based AI and computer vision system allows any shopper to enter a store, grab the items they want and leave. Customers will receive a receipt via their mobile phones (in text message or app notification). This form of technology has already been implemented in grocery and convenience stores, quick-service restaurants, and drugstore chains around North America and Japan. 

In the service industry, McDonald’s acquisition of Machine Learning startup Dynamic Yield proves to be another example of restaurants embracing AI solutions. The major fast-food chain has since implemented its AI solutions in over 9,000 outlets in the United States. Dynamic Yield’s technology allows McDonald’s to optimize drive-thru menu displays by offering menu items based on data such as customers preference, time of the day, nearby traffic levels on their digital menu boards that use machine learning. Besides maximizing personal experience, it also speeds up the waiting time. 

AI’s role in a post pandemic world

Talks of AI infiltrating our jobs and daily lives have been rife before the pandemic. However, as we move forward and enter a post-pandemic world, we will see AI playing a more vital role in societies and every facade of our lives, be it in our workplace, or even your favorite grocery store. 

Automation accelerated by AI will be implemented as much as possible, and sooner than we would imagine, as we move and push through these challenging circumstances that prompt companies in taking transformative steps by implementing AI at the core of their businesses and operating models.

Even though the debate on AI replacing jobs still presents itself, AI is here to stay, without the threat of robbing humanity of its jobs. However, we will now be forced to upskill technologically, with automation in place; we will also need to learn to better work with machines. New technologies will support the workforce as humans and machines will work hand in hand in tackling issues.

The pandemic has merely served as a wake-up call for us to embrace AI sooner, as we emerge from the current crisis, the transformation is pivotal to reestablishing our economic markets.

AI’s place in our ‘new normal’ is cemented to help prepare us as we brace ourselves for a post-crisis world.

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