Appreciating technology’s progress amidst the COVID-19 pandemic
There is no doubt that this global pandemic is putting a massive strain on healthcare systems, businesses, economies, and governments all over the world. The world’s economy is expected to diminish by 3% this year. 36.5 million Americans have applied for unemployment since mid-March, nearing levels not seen since the Great Depression. At the time of publishing, over 8 million people have been infected, and 436,322 have lost their lives. In response, the global population is collectively adjusting to a new way of living as the COVID-19 situation progresses. Amidst the extreme stress and uncertainty that we are all facing, it’s important to take a moment to appreciate some of the technologies that are helping us cope during this difficult time.
Connective technologies like video conferencing, social media, gaming, and more are quickly becoming essentials as we are less able to collaborate, socialize, and interact physically. Working from home, something that would have been practically impossible for many people less than two decades ago, is now supported by these technologies, allowing people to connect via video conferencing apps like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Cisco WebEx etc. Zoom, one of the most popular video conferencing apps of this time, saw a staggering increase in meeting participants, up from 10 million in December to 300 million in April.
Virtual events and educators are utilizing video conferencing as well, in an attempt to continue life as normally as possible. Similar apps like HouseParty and FaceTime are helping friends and families stay connected from afar. Some have noted this reconnection to be ironic in the age of social distancing, as it’s prompting many friends, families, and neighbors to rekindle and deepen their relationships.
Mobile applications and delivery services are enabling people throughout the world to support their favorite local restaurants and vendors by ordering delivery while things remain closed. Throughout the world, apps like Postmates and DoorDash are allowing restaurants to continue business through deliveries, with options to have deliveries left at the door in order to limit person-to-person contact. Some delivery services, like Zomato, are waiving restaurant fees in an effort to bolster the now-struggling industry. In Uganda, the Market Garden app is now connecting women vendors to customers seeking fresh fruits and vegetables that they would normally find in the bustling markets of Kampala but are missing while social distancing rules are in place. In the U.S., 49% of consumers turned to online grocery delivery because of the coronavirus, a practice that may continue even after stay-at-home orders are lifted. Even drones are getting involved in deliveries, with startups like Manna Aero using drones to deliver much-needed medicine to vulnerable people on lock-down.
Social media and entertainment platforms like Instagram, TikTok, and Quibi are providing a welcome distraction from the many stressors of day-to-day life under quarantine. Over 80% of U.S. and UK consumers admit to consuming more content during the lock-down, especially online videos and broadcast TV. In response, Netflix released a way to watch TV shows and movies simultaneously with your friends, virtually. Video games have always been a great way to connect and play with others, and now more people are embracing them. According to Verizon, gaming data usage increased by 75% in mid-March, and several streaming gaming services experienced server issues, likely due to a significant increase of inactive users. Among the affected were Blizzard Activision and Riot Games.
Thanks to these existing technologies, people all over the world are finding ways to stay entertained and sustained during this difficult time, and 9 out of 10 surveyed Americans claim to have a better appreciation for technology due to how it has impacted their lives during this crisis.
How have emerging technologies affected the world’s response to COVID-19?
While artificial intelligence (AI) is still in a relatively nascent stage, researchers have been using it to track the coronavirus and predict potential spread. In the very early days of the virus, Toronto-startup BlueDot’s AI platform spotted a heightened amount of “unusual pneumonia” cases occurring in Wuhan, China. Kamran Khan, BlueDot’s founder and CEO, served as an epidemiologist and physician during the 2003 SARS outbreak, which inspired him to develop a technology that could cull through massive amounts of data in order to detect potentially dangerous diseases. In the past, AI has also successfully predicted the outcomes of the 2016 Zika virus and the 2014 Ebola outbreak. AI machines, like the CS-1 computer from startup Cerebras Systems, are being used to speed up the discovery of a potential vaccine for the coronavirus. Originally intended for cancer research, the CS-1 computer is hard at work at Argonne National Library, running learning models with the intention of finding compounds that may be effective against the virus.
In Singapore, semi-autonomous robots are being utilized to disinfect large public surfaces, such as outdoor seating. One robot, called the eXtreme Disinfection robot (or XDBot), was created in only six weeks by a team at Nanyang Technological University (NTU). In China, robots are helping out in several ways, from taking temperatures to sanitizing surfaces to producing and delivering food. To limit the amount of contact between healthcare workers and COVID-19 patients, robots are also serving as portable telehealth operators. One such example is Boston Dynamics’ Spot, a dog-like robot with a tablet attached for video conferencing purposes. Boston Dynamics also says that they are working on upgrading Spot with technology that would allow the robot to test for fevers and monitor respiratory rates.
The 3D printing community has been incredibly active in finding ways to contribute during this difficult time. Many in the industry have been producing essential gear and helpful devices for healthcare workers, including HP. HP’s 3D research and development centers located in San Diego, Corvallis, Vancouver, Washington, and Barcelona are actively creating mask adjusters, face shields, and hands-free door openers, as well as testing potential new devices that may help patients. HP has made these designs public and available to any who are able to 3D print and contribute to the cause.
We are not alone in our efforts. Digital manufacturing companies from all over the world are coming together to create necessary supplies, such as test swabs. Lamborghini is using HP Multi-Jet Fusion technology to make lung simulators used to test ventilators used by coronavirus patients. Individual 3D-printing enthusiasts are also working tirelessly to give back to healthcare workers, using smaller, at-home 3D printers to craft personal protective equipment and other helpful gear.
During this time of uncertainty and overwhelm, it is perhaps comforting to appreciate how far technology has come. Existing technologies are enabling people to cope in a variety of ways during isolation, and emerging technologies are proving themselves to be essential to the future of our world. While the current pandemic has brought us great challenges, we are better prepared today than we have ever been in history, and perhaps our continued progress will enable humanity to survive future challenges with more confidence and awareness.