The coronavirus has forced us to rethink the way we work. Technology plays a huge role in that transformation.
We’ve known for a long time that technology is a necessity, but nothing has made this fact clearer than the global coronavirus pandemic. For the first time for many, we have witnessed “nonessential” businesses close their doors, state governments issuing orders to stay inside, and people preparing for a changing work environment.
Yet, while this disruption is certainly hard on many businesses, it will be the way these companies use technology that will make the difference between surviving – or even growing – in this difficult time.
From utilizing drones to deliver medical supplies to using artificial intelligence to identify COVID-19 infected individuals, the role of technology has drastically changed over the past few weeks – and will continue to change as people look to technology for solutions.
Changing the Way We Work
With states like Delaware, Kentucky, Louisiana, New York, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey, and California issuing “stay at home” executive orders, more and more offices around the U.S. are being forced to embrace the reality of remote work. There are several reasons why some offices have avoided this type of work in the past. For instance, some managers worry that remote work will keep workers from staying motivated or productive. However, now that many workers are forced to stay home, companies are finally investing in the technology needed to make remote work possible. While this shift was originally predicted to take place over the next 5 to 10 years, the coronavirus has forced it to happen much more quickly than expected.
With many employees working on laptops and using their own devices, it would seem that from a technical standpoint, working from home is easy to support. Yet, it’s not as simple for some industries. For instance, companies in the insurance and financial sectors work with sensitive data that can’t be left on their own internal servers, with some companies use proprietary apps that can only be offered from their office networks. Though remote workers may have access to corporate virtual private networks (VPNs) that allow them access to office networks, everyone working remotely requires more network bandwidth and expanded hardware to encrypt the connections. Unfortunately, some offices don’t necessarily pay for or have the bandwidth to assume that everyone is accessing the infrastructure from the outside. According to Rob Smith, an analyst with Gartner, roughly one-third of all companies are ill-equipped to send all their employees home, while another third have no remote work plan in place at all. Smith further stated that corporate VPN is an aging technology and before the pandemic, he believed it was almost obsolete as companies migrated to cloud-based services. As a result, companies were not interested in investing in their VPNs to allow more employees to work from home.
Yet, companies need to start investing in this infrastructure. According to several studies, workers are more productive when they work from home. Now that companies are making these investments, some predict that offices will be much more likely to stick with remote working – perhaps as a part-time option. As more and more people get used to working from home, they will actually do more work and work longer because they’re no longer dealing with commutes and other interruptions.
An Opportunity for the Tech Industry
One of the detrimental effects of coronavirus is that it has caused unemployment claims to soar due. While this reality is devastating for thousands of workers in sectors like the food service industry, it has also created a chance for tech companies to step up and help. In the U.S., President Trump announced that the White House will work with major tech companies like Amazon, Microsoft and Google to pool supercomputing resources to combat coronavirus by discovering new treatments and vaccines. For instance, Amazon Web Services will be providing credits for technical support and cloud services to researchers to accelerate research and development on COVID-19. Further, several major tech companies in China like Huawei, Tencent and DiDi are utilizing cloud computing resources and supercomputers to speed up the development of a vaccine or cure for coronavirus. These systems are able to run calculations and model solutions much more quickly than standard computer processing.
Further, the spread of online misinformation has called for technological platforms like Amazon, Facebook, Google and Twitter to step up and keep things like dangerous health advice from spreading throughout the internet. The tech platforms’ work to fight misinformation falls into three main categories: promoting good information, demoting bad information, and keeping misinformation from appearing in the first place. While not all misinformation can be stopped, platforms are doing much more to stem the flow of bad information, ultimately contributing to a more informed and confident public.
Technology Fights Back Against COVID-19
Since originating in Wuhan, China, the coronavirus can now be found in 100 countries – and that number has the potential to grow. According to Forbes, one of the ways that China combatted the virus was be depending upon its strong technology sector – specifically artificial intelligence and data science to track and fight the pandemic. At the same time, tech giants like Huawei, Alibaba and Baidu increased their company’s’ health initiatives. As the virus continues to spread across the world, tech startups have started to get involved with government entities, clinicians, and academics to activate technology to slow the virus’ spread.
The following are ways that AI, data science, and technology are being used to manage and slow the spread of COVID-19:
1) AI will identify, track, and forecast outbreaks:
One of the capabilities of AI is its ability to learn. By analyzing government documents, news reports and social media platforms, AI can learn to detect an outbreak. An example of this is the Canadian service startup BlueDot, which tracks infectious disease risks using AI. It was able to warn of the threat several days before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization issued public warnings.
2) AI can help diagnose the virus:
Unsurprisingly, imaging departments are under duress due to the increased workload caused by the virus. As a response, Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba built an AI-powered diagnosis system that they claim is 96% accurate at diagnosing the virus in seconds.
3) Process healthcare claims:
Due to the surge of patients, both the clinical operations of healthcare systems as well as the business and administrative divisions have been overwhelmingly taxed. Technology like blockchain platforms can help speed up claims processing and reduce the amount of face-to-face interaction between hospital staff and patients, a crucial component to preventing the transference of the virus.
4) Drones can deliver medical supplies:
Drone delivery is proving to be one of the fastest and safest ways to get medical supplies. A company making use of this technology is Terra Drone, which is using unmanned aerial vehicles to transport quarantine material and medical samples back and forth from Xinchang County’s disease control center and the People’s Hospital. In addition to these transport benefits, drones can be used for thermal imaging, to patrol public spaces, and to track non-compliance with quarantine/curfew mandates.
5) Robots deliver supplies and food, sterilize:
To reduce the amount of human-to-human contact, robots are being deployed to complete tasks like delivering food and medicine, cleaning and sterilizing. And these robots don’t have to be built for specific environments. Pudu Technology, a Chinese company, deployed robots usually used in the catering industry to more than 40 hospitals scattered across China.
6) Develop drugs:
Google DeepMind’s unit published data files of its best guess of the structure of some proteins that might be implicated in the coronavirus, which can help others develop treatments. AI systems can also be used to build drugs that can treat coronavirus by using predictive capabilities to propose existing drugs that can be useful.
7) Protection offered by advanced fabrics:
Israeli startup Sonovia created face masks made from anti-bacterial, anti-pathogen fabric that depends on metal-oxide nanoparticles. Though not in wide distribution yet, these masks certainly have the potential to stem the flow of the virus.
8) AI can identify infected or non-compliant individuals:
Available from SenseTime, China employs a sophisticated surveillance – yet controversial – surveillance system that uses facial recognition software and temperature detection software. It can be used to detect if an individual has a fever, which can indicate that they have the virus. Similar technology is behind “smart helmets” officials use in the Sichuan province to also identify people who have fevers. In addition to these tools, the Health Code is a monitoring system developed by the government, and uses big data to identify and assess the risk of each individual according to their travel history, potential exposure to people carrying the virus, and how much time they spent in virus hotspots. Citizens use apps like Alipay or WeChat to access their assigned color code (red, yellow, or green) to know whether they should be quarantined or allowed in public.
9) Chatbots can share information:
As anxiety mounts over the pandemic, chatbots have proven to be necessary communication tools for service providers in the tourism and travel industry to keep travelers updates on the latest disruptions and travel procedures. In addition, WeChat is operated by Tencent and allows people to access no-cost online health consultation services through it.
Technology’s Changing Role Amidst the Crisis
Now more than ever, technology is being counted on to help handle the coronavirus. From internet platforms to autonomous robots, all types of technologies are being deployed to keep life moving forward as normally as it can in this time of crisis. Though coronavirus is certainly showing us an unprecedented way of working in the modern age, it is likely that some of these technologies will stick around, ultimately transforming the way we count on technology in the future.
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