Within a week, many world leaders went from downplaying the seriousness of coronavirus to declaring a state of emergency. Even the most efficacious of nations seem to be simultaneously confused and exasperated, with delayed responses revealing incompetence and inefficiency the world over.
So this begs the question: why is it so difficult for us to comprehend the scale of what an unmitigated global pandemic could do? The answer likely relates to how we process abstract concepts like exponential growth. Part of the reason we’ve struggled so much applying basic math to our practical environment is because humans think linearly. But like much of technology, biological systems such as viruses can grow exponentially.
As we scramble to contain and fight the pandemic, we’ve turned to technology as our saving grace. In doing so, we’ve effectively hit a “fast-forward” button on many tech trends that were already in place. From remote work and virtual events to virus-monitoring big data, technologies that were perhaps only familiar to a fringe tech community are now entering center stage—and as tends to be the case with wartime responses, these changes are likely here to stay.
So how will the implications of Covid-19 change the face of technology and business?
Virtual Reality: Mobile Communication & Socialization
We’re currently in the epicenter of the biggest remote-work experiment in history, not to mention remote learning. Tools that let us digitally communicate and collaborate, like Slack, Zoom, and Dropbox, are enabling unprecedented remote work. Just look at the explosive growth in video conferencing tool Zoom (the app was downloaded 343,000 times in one day alone), which grew from a $9 billion IPO less than one year ago to a peak in March of a whopping $44 billion market capitalization.
But as I’m sure everyone has experienced these past few weeks, there are still terminal failures in 2D digital communications. Virtual reality offers a compelling alternative to video calls, allowing people to feel like they are in the same space together—a clear win for the environment and a better use of time. While VR has thus far struggled to go mainstream due to the cost barriers of headsets and the technical idiosyncrasies associated with virtual designs, I expect we’ll see a renewed emphasis on VR programs to help with everything from socialization to mental health support.
5G: Ubiquitous and Next-Gen Networks
Assuming we’re headed for a marked increase in remote work, high-speed and stable internet will be a prerequisite. China is already leveraging 5G for health applications and for monitoring the coronavirus spread. Despite the controversy about health consequences from 5G networks (and ironically, the conspiracy theories blaming 5G for coronavirus), Covid-19 highlights the potential demand for telemedicine, video conferencing, and virtual reality worlds, which will all require a 5G-scale internet upgrade.
China is also planning for a more sophisticated internet protocol. They’re reinventing the internet experience through the creation of a New IP internet, replacing the “anachronistic” version of TCP/IP that we’re all acquainted with.
Data Science: Data Harvesting Through the Media
It’s been said that data is the new oil in today’s digital economy, but that may be underestimating data’s impact. In a relevant example, Toronto-based health monitoring AI platform BlueDot beat both the WHO and the CDC to the punch, warning about the Covid-19 spread in early January, a whole nine days before the WHO released a statement. It then correctly predicted the path of transmission across several cities.
Similarly, researchers at Harvard’s medical school are using citizen-generated data to monitor the progress of Covid-19 by mining social media posts and using natural language processing to look for mentions of the known symptoms. The White House facilitated a task force led by 60 tech companies including Facebook, Google, and IBM to explore the possibility of harnessing location and movement data from Americans’ smartphones to get an edge on coronavirus. The news may not be well-received by privacy-championing Americans. But in China, where “privacy” is barely a word in the common vernacular, these tactics managed to almost zero out the virus’s exponential growth, so the West is beginning to listen up.
Blockchain: Trusted Tracking & Misinformation Management
During this pandemic, the internet has played host to some downright dangerous viral media. The French government had to warn citizens that cocaine could not protect them from the coronavirus. Hundreds of Iranians died from bootleg alcohol poisoning following online claims that it cured coronavirus, and the National Security Council had to debunk myths of a nationwide quarantine. Officials are blaming social media for all of the above.
Social media giants have made valiant attempts to sanitize their platforms. Twitter mobilized a badge system to signal authoritative voices regarding coronavirus, issuing a blue check-mark for verified sources. Data integrity seems to be finally coming in vogue, where science and facts might actually be more valuable than click-bait headlines and advertising dollars.
I predict we’ll see a rise in more sophisticated approaches to data verification, signaling a preference for real-time record management over democratic soap boxes. Blockchain offers a single source of truth with verified data provenance, spotlighting misinformation threads and charlatans alike. A new consortium including IBM, Oracle, and the World Health Organization are collaborating on an open-data hub called MiPasa that will use blockchain technology to check the veracity of data concerning the coronavirus pandemic. It will be the first “information highway” that’s validated by key authorities and available publicly, in hopes of curtailing the spread of false or even dangerous information.
Sensors: Biosensors to Track Health Information
In a recent Financial Times article, sociologist and author Yuval Noah Harari posited a dystopian future where “a hypothetical government demands that every citizen wears a biometric bracelet that monitors body temperature and heart-rate 24 hours a day.”
His article paints an ominous picture of the future, but let’s consider the potential positive implications. Leveraging biosensors, tech startup Medopad has been able to provide clinicians with a remote patient monitoring platform to virtually observe ill and at-risk patients, providing insights to flag patients with worsening symptoms. Now imagine we extrapolate this type of physiological monitoring to normal life; it could beget a whole new level of healthcare management for early intervention and treatment. With the help of wearables like Cloud DX’s Vitaliti, doctors can remotely monitor five different vital signs for 72-hour periods, and can auto-diagnose 19 different conditions with the help of AI and machine learning.
If people are empowered to track their own medical condition 24 hours a day, we can discern not only when we have become a health hazard to other people, but also which habits contribute to or degrade our own health.
Machine Learning: Vaccines and Drugs Faster and Cheaper
The logic of our current market-based system means that private pharmaceutical firms are unlikely to prioritize vaccines until profitability is assured. In the case of public health crises, that puts us at risk when time is of the essence. But to support the acceleration of drug development, AI could manage initial drug discovery in two ways: 1) screening through millions of chemical compounds for potential drugs in simulation tests far faster than any human could; and 2) identifying targets that new drugs can latch onto to make people less sick or to slow the spread of disease.
For Covid-19, DeepMind is focusing on the latter using AlphaFold, a deep learning system that attempts to predict protein structures accurately where no similar proteins exist. And Atomwise is using convolutional neural networks that find patterns in test data. The technology can analyze billions of compounds to identify a promising subset for in-depth testing, compressing years of research into weeks. AI on its own is no silver bullet in overcoming all of the hurdles in vaccine development, but it can certainly speed things up.
3D Printing: Printed Medical Devices
Forget “move fast and break things”; tech is now focused on “move fast and make things.” Notably, making protective face shields, patient gowns, oxygen masks, and even ventilators, all on-demand. Part of the speed of design and manufacturing for some of these items has come from the ability to hack traditional medical devices using parts made with 3D printers. The potential speed and scale of 3D printed components was illuminated in Italy when engineers developed a replacement valve for respiratory aids. They were able to produce 100 within a day at a cost of a 2 Euros each, far cheaper than the $10,000 the valves typically sell for. Talk about disrupting profiteering models!
The Future Looks a Bit Different
The existential threat of the coronavirus has many people asking if this is the end of the world as we know it—and if this crisis is marking a new beginning; a forced metamorphosis, if you will? Perhaps the 2019 Burning Man installation—a metamorphosis theme celebrating change and an exploration of uncertainty—was more prescient than we realized at the time. The theme was aimed at taking stock of current behaviors and acknowledging that the political, cultural, and ecological landscapes are in “a cascade of tipping points.”
There’s no playbook for our current scenario, but pivotal global moments are truly rare. No one knows for sure what the world will look like after this crisis has abated—but we can likely expect an accelerated evolution of our current conventions and tools as a result.
Image Credit: Mariposita art installation at Burning Man, by Chris Carnabuci