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Technologies' Roles and the Pandemic SoC1163 June 2020

Author: Guy Garrud (Send us feedback.)

The coronavirus and the coronavirus-disease-2019 (covid-19) pandemic have caused major disruptions that have had impacts across most industries; however, the nature of the disruptions and the severity of their impacts vary wildly, with some companies and services even thriving in the new environment. For example, McKinsey & Company (New York, New York) estimates that in Italy (the first European country to implement a widespread lockdown), e-commerce transactions increased by 81% during the first month of lockdown. But Gartner (Stamford, Connecticut) senior research director Dayna Ford highlights that the e-payments market will likely see a decline in overall revenue in 2020 because losses for e-payment companies that handle big-ticket purchases such as airline tickets and hotel bookings will offset gains for online retail. Tech companies that offer social-media and messaging services have seen a surge in the use of those services. For example, Facebook (Menlo Park, California) reports that in some regions where the covid-19 pandemic had a particularly strong impact, total messaging across its social-networking and messaging platforms and services increased by 50%, with video calling more than doubling. But because Facebook does not monetize its messaging and video-calling services, it is not benefiting financially from their increased use. In fact, Facebook is struggling to keep these services operational and stable while losing revenue as a result of the pandemic's causing decreases in digital-advertising spending wherever lockdowns are in place. A look at technologies' roles during the pandemic could provide cues about the technologies' uses when the pandemic ends.

The pandemic presents tremendous opportunities in many technology areas.

Facebook is far from alone in experiencing a sudden surge in demand. Indeed, a variety of large tech companies have suddenly found themselves in a position in which they are playing key roles in people's lives on an unprecedented scale. For example, Amazon.com (Seattle, Washington) has struggled to draw customers to its grocery-delivery business but is now seeing a huge surge of customers who suddenly require grocery delivery. Likewise, videoconferencing services from companies such as Zoom Video Communications (San Jose, California) and streaming-media services from companies such as Netflix (Los Gatos, California) have changed from convenient luxuries into essential parts of people's social and work lives. In many countries, lockdowns are acting to cement the commercial dominance of large tech companies over their traditional brick-and-mortar rivals. Moreover, large tech companies are already in a strong position to weather the impacts of the covid-19 pandemic.

Some technology giants are even positioning themselves to play a critical role in efforts to contain the spread of covid-19. For example, Apple (Cupertino, California) and Google (Alphabet; Mountain View, California) worked together to develop an application-programming interface that authorities in a country or region can use to build contact-tracing smartphone apps. Such apps alert smartphone users when they have come in proximity to someone who later tested positive for severe-acute-respiratory-syndrome coronavirus 2—the coronavirus that causes covid-19. Advanced contact-tracing technology is a potentially vital tool for governments that are seeking ways to reduce social-distancing measures without risking additional surges in infection rates. Various countries have already implemented some version of smartphone-based contact tracing, but China's efforts are noteworthy because they move beyond tracking. A system in China that is seeing a nationwide rollout issues users a health code that determines whether they should be in quarantine or free to travel and enter public spaces. Chinese citizens sign up for the system through Ant Financial Services Group's (Hangzhou, China) Alipay wallet app, and the system relies on big data to determine automatically whether a user is a contagion risk.

China has also been making extensive use of emerging technologies in responding to the covid-19 pandemic. For example, in Chengdu, China, some officials wear smart helmets that measure the temperatures of nearby people to identify individuals who have a fever, which indicates a possible coronavirus infection. Other technologies in use in China's response to covid-19 include facial-recognition cameras that use AI-based fever-detection software, drones that make use of thermal cameras, and robots—for example, Pudu Technology (Shenzhen, China) has adapted its catering robots to assist medical staff in hospitals. Autonomous delivery vehicles are also playing a significant role in China. Alibaba Group Holding (Hangzhou, China) and other online retailers have ordered hundreds of autonomous delivery vehicles from Neolix Technologies Co. (Beijing, China). The 1-meter-wide vehicles have 2.4 cubic meters of cargo space and are seeing use to transport medical supplies while spraying disinfectant onto street surfaces. The pandemic is creating huge opportunities elsewhere for other companies that have been developing similar types of autonomous delivery robots.

In a recent Science Robotics article, an international team comprising researchers from Shanghai Jiao Tong University (Shanghai, China), the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich; Zurich, Switzerland), Texas A&M University (College Station, Texas), and several other institutions discusses the important roles that robotics could play during the covid-19 pandemic and other pandemics the world may eventually face. The team highlights that workshops that two science agencies of the US government hosted during the 2015 Ebola outbreak identified three areas in which robotics can have a positive effect during a disease outbreak: clinical care (including decontamination and telepresence for doctors), logistics (including transportation of contaminated waste), and reconnaissance (including monitoring of people's following quarantine guidelines). The team argues that the current pandemic has added a fourth area: continuity of work and socioeconomic functions. According to the team, the pandemic's effects on manufacturing and commercial activities around the world justify more research into remote operation and how remote operation can serve a wide range of applications. This fourth category has both the highest short-term demand and the greatest potential for long-term disruption. Enabling the autonomous or remote performing of tasks could transform various industries by giving companies massive talent pools to draw from, potentially even making possible the recruiting of skilled engineers and other professionals for operations across international borders.

In various ways, the covid-19 pandemic presents tremendous opportunities in many technology areas. However, the eventual impact that technologies will have hinges on two key unknowns. First, how long will the pandemic necessitate societal disruptions such as social distancing? Second, will technologies that saw adoption as a necessity during the pandemic see ongoing use when the pandemic ends? In any case, large tech companies may find themselves in a potent position to capitalize on and potentially shape the new normal.