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Coronavirus and the Rise of Technology

For those deep embedded in the tech community, it has been long known that an opportunity would soon arise for the technologies of the future – notably internet of things, blockchain, cryptocurrency, artificial intelligence, 5G amongst others – to propel themselves into mainstream adoption. It seems the time has come.

For many decades there were inherent problems within the global economy that have hindered growth and called out for solutions. Financial transitions were methodical and far too costly – overshadowed and outpaced by its cousin communication – so Bitcoin was invented. Alongside this was blockchain to solve the growing concern of security and privacy. 4G wasn’t scalable and couldn’t provide enough bandwidth for the capacity of our soaring number of IOT devices – so 5G was introduced.

We stagnated over the questions of philosophy, mathematics and many more. Alan Turing – a man far ahead of his time – was the first to ask the question: ‘can machines think’? This pioneered the invention of what we now know as artificial intelligence. AI is now being set tasks humans don’t have the knowledge and/or timespan to achieve. All of these technologies mentioned have been under constant development in scientific labs and corporate offices for many years. As soon as their potential was proven to these experts, it became a matter of when, not if these technologies became a crucial part of the everyone’s lives.

Despite this, no-one foresaw the events that have unfolded during 2020. The coronavirus which – according to best sources – began in a wet-market in Wuhan, China has begun a worldwide pandemic not seen since the Spanish Flu of 1918. C19 (which I will continue to refer to it as) has brought so much loss to communities and businesses around the world that it could almost be inconceivable that, other than the odd profiteering, there could be any genuine winners to emerge from it. But there are.

Whilst everyone else seems content with the new ‘work from home model’ of video meeting calls on Zoom, school and college classes streamed online and even watching virtual music gigs, I am left curious. How will this change of behaviour impact the health of our physical society when life returns to normal? And second, is the premise of normality now the fallacy of an optimist?

Quietly across the world people are being forced into developing new behaviours. As a result, with more time spent in our homes, we are experiencing a ubiquitous influence of technology and crucially, becoming more dependent on it for daily lives. It could be well argued that before C19, living in an industrialised modern city and choosing not to use the internet, you were actually doing your cognitive potential a disservice. That is now a fact. The attractions and sometimes requirements are simply too great to remain offline. We are now in our homes 23 hours of the day, only leaving for physical activity. This means that the demand for technological usage has soared and we are sharing our data with technology at levels never witnessed before.

Here’s a snapshot graphic from a New York Times Article showing the increased website traffic percentage in the US from 21st January to 24th March.

Current Impacts of C19

With worldwide industry currently operating at 25% capacity and the biggest economic cities resembling ghost towns, governments and corporations must find ways now and following this crisis to increase productivity, as well as containing the spread of the virus. Humans are no longer allowed to congregate in large spaces which means that because most industry is built upon the age-old structure of assembly lines – think factory warehouses, office spaces and schools – most of us are incapable of physical work. What this means for the economy is a growing potential for a recession on a global scale. The UK for instance is reported to expect a 35% downturn in economic growth in Q2 of 2020 – the biggest single figure recorded in the history of data collection.

The consultations between governments and corporations have resulted in a unified conclusion. The only way to stimulate job creation, increase production and rebuild the core of our society, is for us to take this opportunity of social distancing and distributed living and use it to immerse ourselves into a full technological revolution. And if you look closely enough for the trees in the forest, you’ll see that this is exactly what is happening.

I find it almost impossible to believe that the companies who have and will go onto exponential benefit from the pandemic – in terms of increased awareness, traffic and most importantly sales – will simply give back advantage to those who held it before. That line of thinking is nonsense. They are in the market of attention, of data collection. Not philanthropy!

Robin-Hood generosity is not how the mechanics of capitalism works. Market forces are built up the construct of Darwinism – competition, rivalry and survival of the fittest. Whilst the public are frantically filling their trolleys with toilet paper, tech corporations are gearing up for the biggest data arms race of their existence. I’ll get onto that, but first, what will be the impact felt by the average citizen?

Digital Workspaces

Following on from C19, businesses will be forced into changing the dynamics of their workplace environment to allow for homeworking, remote work and more flexible shift patterns. This will be especially true for the majority of businesses if a vaccine is not found this calendar year. This change will reduce the expenditure of businesses who can offload some of the surplus physical space, but also inflict greater challenges on their employees who will have less balance and develop barriers of conflict due to the breakdown of natural communication. Industry focus will then shift to alleviate these problems, but with a continued push with the distancing model.

The list of those who have lost employment, or who cannot find work during this time will grow greater as time goes on. Research from the University of Cambridge on the impact of inequalities in the UK concludes that “younger workers and those at the bottom of the income distribution being hit hardest” and that “preventing this shock from having permanent effects on the employment progression… (of these groups) …is of first-order policy importance.” Young people will be encouraged to take more virtual teleworking positions, distributed roles such as farming and manufacturing, even if that means at a job based overseas.

Initially for the purpose of reducing virus spreading and going forward for productivity, this distancing model will also translate into schools and higher education where learning from afar will be more encouraged by governing bodies. According to UNESCO, “72% of the world’s student population” has been impacted by C19. These displaced students have found solutions themselves.

Online courses, webinars, podcasts and virtual chatting have all seen a drastic increase in usage and will continue to in the months that follow as they are clearly contact-proof and present no danger to increased C19. The first of companies that have benefited are online video providers such as Zoom and Google Classrooms, seeing exponential rises in numbers to their platforms since world-isolation began. We can see this development in the graphic below from the same New York Times article as mentioned above.

We have and will continue to witness the push for technology to be used in the workplace, classroom and even for social interactions. Psychologists have for some time considered the plateau of new habit creation to be at 66 days. Many people will reach this number in their isolation period and therefore become fully adapted to this new way of life. The behaviour of using video platforms for these purposes above will be reinforced by governments even when restrictions are lifted to continue flattening the curve. Favouring the digital space over the physical one in the workplace and classroom will result in both benefits and drawbacks for our society. I believe that a balance has to be found in the years to come which prioritises employees and student development and welfare.

These sectors are not the only one to embark on this journey. Creativity has too begun its transition online. Everything from dance classes, to music gigs, to poetry slams are being livestreamed on social media to virtual students and fans across the globe. This will continue for the months following world-isolation if mass gatherings – which it’s worth noting are at the bottom of the agenda – are still prohibited by government. Using online platforms, artists have already begun grouping together in a social cohesion to reach a wider audience whilst campaigning to getting paid. This opens up the possibility of a new digital currency to enter the market.

Cryptocurrency

Going forward, cryptocurrency tokens are the most promising scenario to be used to pay artists a fair fee for their digital content. This will also apply to Youtubers, influencers, musicians, bloggers and any other online content creators. Many companies have been anticipating this rise of the digital ecosystem for many years and are now at the forefront for this mass adoption countdown. One such company is Coil – an online platform which enables bloggers to earn XRP for their content. This rise for content work which is paid will only increase in demand because of C19 and our inability to earn from the physical space.

Currency will not only play a role in the creative sector. The revolution of the global economy into a faster, more efficient model will be another important change to our society in the years to come. Cash was a dying breed pre-C19. Now, after the strict global advice on sanitation and an urge for cleanliness, the very thought of handling and transacting notes following this pandemic – even with their new plastic polymer coating – seems unthinkable. The high-street is dead, along with household brands that we have come to love. C19 will change the economic landscape of Britain more than any war or conflict before.

The implementation of technology is the optimal solution in our new economy. People will opt for methods of least contact in daily lives which give genuine protecting physically and mentally. A true purpose has been given to digital payments, e-wallets and of course cryptocurrencies. The question of which cryptocurrency is best suitable is something I would like to cover at a later date. For now, just know that for all their qualities in transactional speed, lower costs and privacy amongst others, it might just be their intangibility and lack of human contact that becomes their ultimate purpose and what convinces the public of their need for mass adoption. When Facebook’s Libra project takes another shot at the mainstream then they will benefit from the rise of the cryptocurrency markets following C19 too, utilising their existing database which trumps most countries to take an advantage.

Internet of Things

Saying all this, the biggest change that consumers will feel in the couple of years that follow C19 is the enhanced recommendation from government and corporations of the usage of Internet of Things. IOT describes technological devices in an interconnected web that essentially ‘talk’ and communicate data with one another. From smart TV’s and smartphone to hospital image screening, to lightbulbs to your sports trainers. Anything that has access to the internet can be added to the internet of things.

5G as network platform is a gateway for IOT, VR as well as AI to progress. It will scale-up the infrastructure of the world’s ability to communicate and allow for the fanatical model of smart cities to become a reality. That’s why Britain has been pushing for this and is now said to be the current leader in this global mission to connect the world. The reality of smart cities allows for all technologies to be connected like no other before. You could accurately compare it to something from a sci-fi movie. Imagine a city with the communication infrastructure of 5G, the connectivity of IOT, the privacy and security of blockchain, the payments method of cryptocurrency, the intelligence of AI and the production of robotics. That’s the ambition.

It’s important to remind ourselves that all of these technologies mentioned work, communicate and analyse their shared data together for one common cause – that currently being C19. The Open University in the UK is currently pilot testing a new contact-tracing app which primarily will use blockchain technology, but will also could be classed under IOT, to eventually to provide full immunity testing and certification for members of the public.

Back to 5G and its impact. There’s a story I read about Himalayan yaks hauling 5G stations up to base camp of Mount Everest for China Mobile Hong Kong and Huawei. It’s worth the Google search, trust me. That move makes it clear that 5G is required as quickly and as wide-scaled as possible to cope with the current demand of our key-industries during C19. As a report released in April 2020 from the European Parliamentary Research Service states “digital information and surveillance technologies have been unleashed in an unprecedented manner to collect data and reliable evidence to support public health decision-making.”

Industries such as transportation, healthcare and food supply chains have seen drastic increases in demand since C19 which now require the immediate intervention of 5G to allow them to share data and communicate effectively to treat patients and prevent further the spread of the virus. Because of this contact-tracing and push for more connectivity, people will notice the effects of IOT more than other technologies mentioned because they are directly built for the end-customer. We will be shaped greatly in the coming years because they are built for your wrist, your car and within your home to directly enhance your lives.

You could almost compare this new age to the history of world colonisation in that we shared cultures, cuisines, languages and ways of life, but also broke barriers of privacy, of rights and freedom. What we want to during this era is clean up the latter as soon as possible and only take the benefits of tech forward into the years to come.

Autonomous Vehicles

In the aftermath of the 2002 SARS virus, the Chinese e-commerce sector thrived, birthing B2B sites and online marketplaces such as Alibaba and Taobao. Using 5G as a base to build from, what other technologies using 5G as a base will thrive post-C19 that will impact society?

Going forward, human-to-human contact will be avoided as much as possible beginning from the origins of the supply chain, right through to the end consumer. Efforts to minimise the C19’s potential to spread are already at the forefront of every corporation’s mind in creating new products and making important decisions. Looking globally, a Chinese company called Meituan Dianpinghas has adapted their service range and begun scaling up distribution of their autonomous ‘contact delivery’ service throughout the country. This has allowed people who aren’t able to leave their homes – especially the elderly – to receive food supplies, books and cosmetic items from robotic vehicles which have been effectively sanitised and so don’t carry the fear of virus contaminant that a human would. Similar robots are also being tested by other companies across the world to automate short journeys and increase time efficiency.

This also applies to drone testing which have been granted “air corridors” by aviation authorities during C19 in cities such as London, Singapore and North Dakota so they can provide essential services to people in their homes and hospitals whilst “limiting unnecessary exposure” to C19 as one US mayor, Michael Brown put it. They are also being used for thermal tracking, spraying disinfect on the streets, monitoring social distancing laws and broadcasting as we have seen in the UK.

We can see drones and autonomous delivery services soon being scaled up globally to monitor civilians in daily lives. This will be marketed as a safety precaution by governments and corporations to fight future crisis, but will certainly result in job losses throughout multiple sectors as technology becomes favoured over humans.

The introduction of virtual hologram installation in homes which will provide customers with a new cinematic experience of online retailing, with all the benefits of social distancing. Voice technologies such as Amazon’s Alexa or Google’s Home could also be used to assist in social distancing as they remove the barriers of touch in a workplace or social environment. Using 5G and IOT, the potential of this kind of technology will certainly be available.

Ultimately, whatever sector they are used in – if these new technologies can prove to us in the next 12-18 months that will provide an inherent benefit to our lives, we will accept it and never look back. Our ideal of normal is now under construction. The inevitability of mass adoption will catapult us into hyper-connectivity whereby each action of our daily lives is someway connected to the internet. Each and every move will be tracked, store and analysed to increase performance. This could be walking your dog with a bio-tracking bracelet, driving your car to work with real-time traffic data, or being tracked by a sniper army of surveillance cameras whilst walking the streets.

Conclusion

The Spanish Flu lasted for 2 years before it was wiped out. That isn’t an inconceivable timeline for the pandemic that we are currently experiencing. If that timeline does hold up, these new technologies will have enough time to make great, long lasting impacts on our society. Behaviours will change in society and we will become more comfortable with communicating, working and learning online. This will all be required for the fight against C19, but following the crisis that is where questions and debates will begin to arise. Whereas in 1918, science held the answer to resolving the crisis, now it seems technology is the best fit.

C19 is the first time in history that technology has been available to support the effort of humans in their fight against a global pandemic. So far, technology has proved its worth to us – blockchain is assisting the UK government in contract tracing of C19 to reduce new cases, 5G and IOT has effectively allowed global industries to rapidly communicate and instantly share data to sustain the economy, manage the capacity level and supply chains and ultimately suppress new cases. Going forward, cryptocurrency will also be helpful in transforming the collapsing economic system.

However, for all these technologies can do for good, there are still some growing issues. Privacy, data protection and the misuse of data for personal gain are all valid concerns for citizens. We must be careful not to become blinded by the technological impacts of C19. As I said, we must see the trees within the forest. Big tech behemoths such as Google, Amazon and Facebook will benefit from C19 because of increased usage of their platforms. If we do implement the likes of blockchain contact-tracing, increase our surveillance presence and wide-scale 5G networks, then we must be aware to who all this new data information is going.

The European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) report states that “numerous data-collection and location-tracking technological applications have been launched on the basis of emergency laws that involve the temporary suspension of fundamental rights and authorisation of medical devices and vaccines via fast-tracked procedures.”

These platforms amongst others will have to be monitored for their true impact on society going forward. If they can pass the test, they will propel us into the tech revolution we have been waiting decades for. If not, then the technological revolution may well follow previous trends in building parachutes of privacy on the way down.

The EPRS go-on to say that C19 “represents an excellent opportunity for policy-makers and regulators to reflect on the legal plausibility, ethical soundness and effectiveness of deploying emerging technologies under time pressure.

The world has thrown us a problem, we must work with technology in the right way to find an answer.

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