- Brianna Welsh
Exponential Technologies in a Post-COVID World
Within a week, many of the world leaders went from: “everyone is overreacting about this Coronavirus thing” to declaring a state of emergency. The only thing I can recall in my lifetime eliciting such a dramatic response was 9/11. But that event was unmistakably destructive, triggering a similarly palpable response almost regardless of culture or political disposition. Conversely, reactions – both on a political and individual level – to Covid-19 have been among the most incredulously polarizing I’ve ever witnessed. Even the most efficacious of nations seem to be simultaneously confused and exasperated, with delayed responses revealing incompetence and inefficiency the world over. But what I’m sure we can all agree on, is that 2020 has been a full-on emotional rollercoaster, and wow are we looking forward to this year being over.
But the question remains, 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 environments (other than that most of us were sleeping through grade school and Google came along to do our homework), is because humans think linearly. But like much of technology, biological systems such as viruses, can grow exponentially. Renowned physics professor Al Barlett claimed that the “greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function”, and there has been no event starker than this to validate his conclusion than Covid-19.
The human difficulty with exponents has been appreciated since at least 1256, when an Islamic scholar recorded what is known as the wheat and chessboard problem. The problem appears in a parable about the inventor of chess. In an attempt to acquire a new game, the king asked the inventor to agree on a price, to be paid in wheat. The inventor requested that one grain of wheat be placed on the first square of the chessboard, two grains on the second, and so on, with the sum doubling in this way over 64 squares. The king promptly agreed, thinking it was a great bargain, but was stunned when his treasurer informed him that the sum would bankrupt the kingdom. The total number of grains comes to 18,446,744,073,709,551,615.
In a quick mathematics example that is easy to visualize, 30 steps linearly, and you’re at 30 - one, two, three, four, until step 30. With exponential growth, it's one, two, four, eight. Step 30, you're at a billion!
What are Exponential Technologies?
Eponymously referred to as “Moore’s Law”, the term is attributed to Gordon Moore – the founder of Fairchild Semiconductor and former CEO of Intel – thanks to his 1965 seminal paper describing the doubling in the number of transistors per integrated circuit every 24 months. He projected this rate of growth would continue for at least another decade, but the phenomenon has persisted through recent years, and is the culprit for the rise in technology capability that we’re witnessing today. Similarly, the Law of Accelerating Returns, posited by Futurist Ray Kurzweil, suggests that “measures in information technology follow predictable and exponential trajectories and that the more advanced such a system becomes, the faster its rate of progress grows”.
Exponential technology is two things:
It’s exponential. In each period it doubles in capability or performance. This also applies to cost in the reverse; it halves in cost in each period.
It is now at the point where its price-performance or relative cost makes it possible to solve complex problems in ways that were not previously possible.
Examples of exponential technologies that are not necessarily novel concepts, but novel in their practical applications thanks to exponential computational power, include 3D printing, drones, robotics, artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, autonomous vehicles, VR/AR, among others. Each of these technologies represent multi-trillion-dollar economies, and their convergence and combinatorial power are spawning growing innovation and economic opportunities. Their advances facilitate and leverage collective intelligence, helping us to garner greater insights from previously unintelligible data.
What Does This Mean for Our Future?
In a recent poll conducted by Digital Health News, more than 87% of readers believe “the outbreak of Covid-19 will speed the adoption of digital tools across the NHS”. Since the Coronavirus outbreak began sweeping the globe, it’s become clear that digital technologies are the most effective levers to address such complex challenges. Private companies and technology providers have responded with breakneck speed, offering resources more effectively than any public policy measure taken thus far. Recognizing the potential significance of deep tech, the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) has just announced a £500,000 funding prize for a new technology that can be scaled within weeks to support people self-isolating. And through a coordinated effort of private companies to respond to Covid-19, StopTheSpread.org has helped businesses identify and address the biggest health and economic challenges we’re facing thanks to Covid. Companies across Europe and the United States like Zara, Nike, Dyson, General Motors and Tesla are adapting 180-degrees to producing completely foreign products, in a frantic effort to assist in the coronavirus response. Everything from make-shift masks to sanitizer and even entire ventilators are being produced on demand by companies who traditionally produced products like alcohol and vacuums. It’s truly the most impressive coordinated effort of capitalism I’ve ever witnessed. So how will the implications of Covid-19 change the face of tech and business – and especially, exponential tech?
In the Post-Covid 19 Era, What Type of Systemic Change Will We See?
My optimistic view is that the world will return to a semblance of normalcy for most people, but a few industries will never fully rebound. The cruise industry, travel and events, for example may be in terminal positions if they don’t manage to pivot, and hopefully the fast fashion and world of vacuous social media influencing will take a much-needed hiatus. But similar to the global travel measures enforced following 9/11 that never really disappeared, we will likely witness a surge in exponential technologies that have come to the rescue during Covid, along with many others spawning out of a brand-new type of social and economic demand.
1. Mobile – Digital Communication and Remote Work
Something I’ve been pondering since around the time of Ready Player One’s blockbuster release, is whether we will ever truly transform from a physical to virtual society. It is said that the easiest way to hack a future prediction is to observe the way the world looks to people aged 14-22, because this stage of development is responsible for our most profound imprints. This age bracket – the Gen Zs as they’re labeled – is completely digitally native, with many experiencing more of a reality online than in 3D. It makes me question whether we will ever return to the culture of experiential community gatherings emblematic of the Millennial generation. And what about children growing up in a post-Covid world? How will they adapt to each other, how will they perceive the interconnectedness of the 21st century? Are we going to shift further into a state of mediated interactions out of fear of our physical risk, or will the social distancing remind us of our herd nature, reinvigorating our desire to connect somatically, finally pushing us through the hypnotism of our social media-curated lives?
In the professional arena, my instinct is that the preference for the presence of others might be replaced by a preference for distance, especially with those we don’t know intimately. There will almost certainly be a surge in remote connection tools for businesses, as instead of asking, “is online going to be sufficient?”, we’ll be asking, “is there any good reason to do this in person?”. Once companies sort out their remote work dance steps, it will be harder and more expensive to deny employees the option. Remote work allows employees to ditch the daily commute, freeing up approximately 120 hours per year potentially productive time, and of traffic congestion (with a second-order effect of alleviating the congestion-driven pollution). In other words, it turns out, an awful lot of meetings (and doctors’ appointments, classes and admin) really could have been done online. And now they will be.
Accordingly, we’re 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, Dropbox, and Gsuite, are enabling unprecedented remote work. Just look at the explosive growth in video conferencing tool Zoom. After IPOing less than a year before the Coronavirus descended upon the US at only $9 billion, its market cap has grown to a whopping $44 billion as I type this. They saw an increase in use of 67% from January to March 2020, and in a single March day, the Zoom app was downloaded 343,000 times. And for more sophisticated technologies, tools like DataRobot and H20.ai are democratizing artificial intelligence by allowing almost anyone (not just data scientists or computer engineers), to run machine learning algorithms.
On a social scale, we’re finally moving beyond the application of digital to facilitate our social-media-curated lives amplifying our personal brand, to a phase of pro-sociality, where we’re feeling a renewed drive to connect and support people, even those we don’t know personally. We’re seeing this through the rise in apps like Houseparty – which wasn’t even in the top 1500 apps a month ago – now rising to #2 in the App Store, second only to Zoom. Houseparty’s download rate in March was 323 times higher than its average in February. And schemes like the” Adopt a Grandparent” online chat service, received 41,000 applications in 48 hours in the UK, while the NHS’ plea for public and health support raked in more than 750,000 volunteers in less than two days. They’ve even had to pause the application site while they process the overwhelming number of applications. Clearly people are wanting to connect, and in a far more personal and meaningful way than the 2010 decade was leading us.
2. 5G – Ubiquitous and Next-Gen Networks
Assuming we’re headed for a marked increase in remote work, highspeed and stable internet is a prerequisite. A few of the celebrity technocrats championed the concept of “universal basic internet”, with initiatives like Google’s Project Loon and SpaceX’s Starlink satellite broadband network currently underway. Back in 2013 when Mark Zuckerberg announced his plans to connect the globe for free, he claimed the internet was a “fundamental right, like food and water”. And now that remote civilization will reinforce the correlation between internet access and economic success, there will likely be a revived effort to affect the agenda of ubiquitous internet access.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, highly advanced countries like China are already planning for more sophisticated internet technologies. 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. According to Huawei, the controversial tech company spearheading this movement, the existing infrastructure underpinning the global internet is “unstable and vastly insufficient to meet the requirements of the digital world like self-driving cars, the internet of things and holo-sense teleportation”. Huawei claims that New IP is being developed “purely to meet the technical requirements of a rapidly evolving digital world, promoting data-sharing schemes across governments thereby serving AI, Big Data and all kinds of other applications”.
In China, 5G is already being used to support health applications and apps that monitor the users’ temperatures. A program was recently launched at a coronavirus hospital ward in Wuhan staffed by 5G-powered robots to protect medics from the virus. And despite the controversy about health consequences from 5G networks (and ironically, the conspiracy theories blaming 5G for Coronavirus), Covid-19 highlights the potential application for telemedicine, video conferencing, and virtual reality worlds, all among the key use cases for 5G. Because 5G enables high bandwidth and ultra-low latency communications, it allows doctors to connect with patients through a 4K resolution and 60fps frame rate over a mobile service – a feature that makes it extremely valuable to rural areas beyond the reach of fibre infrastructure.
3. AI – Mobile Medicine and Preventive Health Apps
We’re in the middle of a public health emergency. Covid epidemic has revealed deadly flaws in healthcare systems worldwide, almost regardless of ideology and infrastructure. Though nowhere has Covid exposed the dysfunctions of the healthcare system more than in the US. Extreme healthcare costs and low medical capacity make for a perfect storm of unique vulnerability to a highly contagious pandemic. Expect a big shake up in the discourse during this year’s election (assuming Trump doesn’t get his way and there actually is an election…).
Addressing inefficiencies in at least one part of the value chain, the pandemic will shift the paradigm of where our healthcare delivery takes place, sweeping away many of the artificial barriers to moving our lives online. For years, telemedicine has lingered on the sidelines as a cost-controlling, high-convenience system. But in a post-Covid world, remote office visits could skyrocket in popularity as traditional-care settings are overwhelmed. And in a highly contagious viral outbreak, it’s in everyone’s best interest to keep people isolated from medical workers at risk and patients who need critical care.
Well-known healthcare startups such as Babylon Health and Ada Health already offer such AI-powered ‘chat’ apps supporting panic-stricken citizens on demand. Over at Microsoft, the tech giant is now offering its Healthcare Bot service to organizations on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response to help screen patients for potential infection and care. The CDC just released a COVID-19 assessment bot that can quickly assess the symptoms and risk factors, provide information and suggest the next course of action such as contacting a medical provider or at-home treatment. Chatbot-based symptom checking software startup Clearstep has created its own COVID-19 screener, which goes more in-depth to combine symptom checking with screening for potential exposure to the virus. Medicare is finally allowing billing for telemedicine. And the HIPAA is permitting medical providers to use generic communication tools like Skype, Facetime and email. Regulatory bureaucracy might have dragged its feet in the past, but Covid is rapidly accelerating some long-overdue changes.
“Healthspan” is another practical change that is going to be prioritized, with preventive health tools like mental wellness, exercise and diet rising in adoption as more people feel a critical motivation to keep themselves out of the hospitals. All NHS staff can now access free apps Daylight and Sleepio to cope with insomnia and anxiety as part of a nationwide effort to support the mental health of the national health service workforce while Covid is ongoing. Featuring Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) techniques designed to help maintain healthy and restorative sleep, reduce anxiety and worry, these apps are provided to help NHS employees learn evidence-based techniques to address mental health issues when they arise. I don’t anticipate these being rescinded following recovery, in fact, I expect the government will experience such an uptake they’ll need to partner with Big Health to maintain them on a more permanent basis. Indeed, the UK government has already amended its Mental Health Act to increase the capacity of mental health services, allowing providers to move rapidly to adopt telehealth solutions.
4. 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”. Data will continue to be a key driver of the global economy going forward, and scarcity is not a concern. In recent examples, Toronto-based health monitoring A.I. 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 that the path of transmission across several other cities. By combining existing data sets to create new insights, BlueDot uses big data analytics to track and anticipate the spread of the world’s most dangerous infectious diseases, leveraging the power of AI to monitor scores of news reports, airline data, and animal disease outbreaks. A.I. is also being used to model Ebola outbreaks using movement data to make informed predictions which are cross-checked by epidemiologists.
The BBC carried out a citizen science project in 2018, which solicited the participation of citizens to generate new scientific data about how infections spread. Participants downloaded the BBC Pandemic app to monitor their GPS position every hour, reporting who they had encountered or had contact with that day. Fast forward to 2020, researchers at Harvard’s medical school are using citizen-generated data to monitor the progress of the disease by mining social media posts and using natural language processing to look for mentions of the known symptoms. This builds on evidence from the journal Epidemiology that found that hot spots of tweets could be good indicators of how diseases spread. Going a step further, the White House Office of Science of Technology and the Office of American Innovation have facilitated a task force lead by 60 tech companies including Facebook, Google and IBM to explore the possibility of harnessing location and movement data from Americans’ smartphones to combat coronavirus. Given some of these guys’ reputations with personal data protection, it’s fair to say the news has gotten a few people on edge.
But in China, where “privacy” is barely a word in their vernacular and citizens are familiar with Big Brother-esque surveillance, they managed to almost zero out the point of infection that sparked exponential growth. Chinese citizens have had to adjust to a new level of government intrusion, that redefines the term “Draconian”, but for many, it’s considered a worthy sacrifice for the greater good. Their measures were so extreme, that even entering your own apartment or workplace required a QR code scan that assigns individuals one of three colour codes, calculated by an algorithm ranking recent travel history, time spent in outbreak hotspots, exposure to potential carriers of the virus and temperature recording. In some instances, citizens were required to contact telecom providers to authorize 14 days of mobile location history. Meanwhile the WeChat and Weibo apps offered hotlines to report others who may be sick. Some cities even offered rewards for informing of sick neighbours, including a threat of social credit score downgrade for those who failed to report their own risk. Concurrently, the government rolled out facial recognition technology capable of detecting elevated temperatures in a crowd, or to flag citizens not wearing a face mask. A range of apps use the personal health information of citizens to alert others of their proximity to infected patients or if they have been in close contact to someone who is positive. Thankfully we don’t expect China to be the barometer of global surveillance, but South Korea and Israel have already begun initiatives to use smartphone data to monitor the spread of coronavirus, and surely others will follow suit.
Last May, Facebook’s data scientists introduced disease-prevention maps to help nonprofits and universities working in public health get ahead of disease outbreaks. Among the offerings: population density maps that use satellite imagery and census data to create detailed maps that include insights on demographics such as young or elderly populations. Movement maps that draw on health system information and aggregated location information from Facebook aren’t far behind. Direct Relief, a California-based disaster-relief organization, has been working with mapping tools such as those at Facebook to track population movements during natural disasters to determine evacuation patterns and if people are leaving the fire perimeter zone. They’ve now been engaged by Californian officials to provide insight into what is happening with the coronavirus. Researchers are looking to integrate location data into disease-forecasting models to estimate contact rates, rates of transmission and to project where the disease might spread to next, in particular to those in the highest risk groups. Even the poster-child of the free world might have just normalized mass surveillance.
Extrapolating to an Orwellian future, as posited in a recent MIT article, “imagine a world in which, to get on a flight, you’ll need to register to a service that tracks your movements. The airline wouldn’t be able to see where you’d gone, but it would get an alert if you’d been close to known infected people or disease hot spots. There’d be similar requirements at the entrance to large venues, government buildings, or public transport hubs. There would be temperature scanners everywhere, and your workplace might demand you wear a monitor that tracks your temperature or other vital signs. Where nightclubs ask for proof of age, in future they might ask for proof of immunity—an identity card or some kind of digital verification via your phone, showing you’ve already recovered from or been vaccinated against the latest virus strains”. This might just be the next stage of “normal state interventions” we’re bullied into accepting.
5. Blockchain - Trusted Expert Tracking Tools & Misinformation Management
“And just like that, accuracy mattered. As we face a range of possible scenarios, from the mild to the frankly catastrophic, we can feel it collectively now: we want to know the facts.” – Carin Ism
The question is: will the democracies in the West pull together to construct the legal and technological frameworks for a practical alternative to the two rather sinister examples we have today: the exploitative capitalist internet, and the surveillance-based authoritarian version? “In the wake of scandals from Cambridge Analytica to Facebook’s role in inciting violence in Myanmar, many experts see the internet as a civic space that requires better public hygiene. Governments – whether democratic or authoritarian – are tired of being shut out and are agitating for more influence online. And the colossal failure of the Trump administration both to keep Americans healthy and to slow the pandemic-driven implosion of the economy might shock the public enough back to insisting on something from government other than vapid entertainment”. The uncertainty around the coronavirus outbreak has led to a significant number of online rumors, hoaxes, conspiracy theories, and snake oil cures. Earlier this week, for example, a fake news report of a national quarantine spread so quickly that the National Security Council had to post a statement to assure Americans the news was untrue. The French government warned citizens that cocaine cannot, in fact, protect from the coronavirus after myths spread online, and in Iran, hundreds of people died from methanol poisoning after drinking bootlegged alcohol following online claims that it cures Coronavirus. Officials are blaming social media for all of the above.
The general sentiment seems to call for more honest reporting and the cooperation of a well-informed public. Health organizations and political leaders have urged citizens to get their news from trusted sources and not from social media, where misinformation spreads more quickly than tech companies can moderate. But sadly, social media is the primary source of news for most people in 2020. So, my prediction is that we’ll restore the ability to socialize safely by developing more sophisticated ways to monitor digital media. Twitter has already taken a stance, mobilizing a badge system to help prioritize and signal more authoritative and verified voices that can provide “credible updates” on the topic of the coronavirus, issuing a blue check-mark for verified sources. Google launched a search feature that includes an eddy of Twitter accounts posting information related to the pandemic. And WhatsApp is testing a feature that could make it simpler for its 2 billion users to discern the accuracy of shared content, giving users the ability to fact check through an extension connecting to the web. India even released a WhatsApp bot feature to help its citizens stay informed about coronavirus.
Given time pressure, are all half-baked attempts at controlling the virility of disinformation. But once the dust has settled, I predict that we’ll see a rise in more sophisticated approaches to data verification. And just like that, blockchain might return to the limelight. Containing the virus (and all future global health matters) should be looked at as a data management issue. The triumph for blockchain in the healthcare industry is as a single source of truth with verified data provenance, spotlighting misinformation threads and charlatans alike. Real-time record management and data integrity might finally come in vogue, where science and facts become more valuable than click-bait headlines and advertising dollars. Companies like Seal are already using blockchain to verify the authenticity of a product, while others are using it as proof of authorship and proof of data integrity. 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 to curtail the spread of unvalidated or even dangerous information.
6. Sensors - Biosensors to Track Health Information As we discussed, several governments have already deployed new surveillance tools leveraging mobile apps, GPS location services, and city-wide cameras. But what also might be normalized, is the deployment of tools for “under the skin” surveillance. Sociologist and author Yuval Harari articulated this threat in his March-issued Financial Times article, suggesting that “hitherto, when your finger touched the screen of your smartphone and clicked on a link, the government wanted to know what exactly your finger was clicking on. But with coronavirus, the focus of interest shifts. Now the government wants to know the temperature of your finger and the blood-pressure under its skin.” Judging by the prescience of his other pronouncements, this dystopian perspective on the future of sensors is likely a harbinger of news to come.
He continues – “consider a hypothetical government that demands that every citizen wears a biometric bracelet that monitors body temperature and heart-rate 24 hours a day. The algorithms will know that you are sick even before you know it, and they will also know where you have been, and who you have met”. His article paints an ominous picture of the future (and I’m sure you can recognize the potential negative consequences if such data is abused), but let’s consider the positive implications for a second. Imagine the change in baseline health once we’re all monitoring our health, each of us aware when we’re experiencing an irregular heart rate, or elevated glucose or increased stress levels. If we can get tailored insights about our body’s physiological response to our diet, sleep, and lifestyle, we enable a whole new level of healthcare management for early-intervention and treatment. If citizens 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. With the help of wearables like Cloud DX's Vitaliti, doctors can remotely monitor five different vital signs for 72 hour periods, and can also auto-diagnose 19 different conditions with the help of AI and machine learning.
Wearables and biometric sensors are going to continue being applied to support the overburdened healthcare system to keep track of patients through remote patient monitoring (RPM). Tech startup Medopad is providing clinicians with a specialized Covid-19 version of its RPM platform to monitor ill and at-risk patients, providing insights to help prioritize resources and respond more effectively. Using Medopad’s RPM app and a clinician dashboard, doctors can track patient data and symptom progression and flag patients with worsening symptoms, both inside and outside of clinical settings. Patients are able to use a corresponding mobile phone app to securely share personal health data such as temperature, respiration rate and heart rate. Medopad is also working with its global partners, including Johns Hopkins and Tencent to clinically validate digital biomarkers to identify individual patient risk for Covid-19 and monitor respiratory symptoms and disease progression. The includes developing a way to use a smartphone’s gyroscope-powered motion sensors to accurately measure an individual’s heart and respiratory rate without the need for additional hardware.
7. Machine Learning – Vaccines and Drugs made Faster and Cheaper
The coronavirus has laid bare the failures of our inefficient market-based system for developing, researching and manufacturing medicines and vaccines. Covid-19 is one of several coronavirus outbreaks we have seen over the past 20 years, yet the logic of our current system – costly government incentives intended to stimulate private-sector development – has led to the 18-month delay for widespread vaccine availability. Private pharmaceutical firms are unlikely to prioritize a vaccine until profitability is assured, and in the case of public health crises, that puts us at risk when time is of the essence. Fragile supply chains for pharmaceutical ingredients and outrage over patent abuses limit the availability of new treatments, leading to an emerging consensus that the public sector must take a more active responsibility in the development and manufacturing of medicines. Clearly market-based (capitalist) incentives aren’t in the broader best interest when it comes to public health, often hobbling production and R&D due to profiteering, so it’s time for the government to step up to bat.
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 expert; and 2) identifying targets that new drugs can latch onto, either to reduce their impact (making people less sick), or to slow their spread among people. 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. Atomwise uses convolutional neural networks that find patterns in test data exceed the capabilities of humans to detect. 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.
8. 3D Printing – 3D 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 now even entire ventilators, all on-demand. How? By establishing global volunteer networks comprised of engineers, entrepreneurs and doctors to hack traditional medical devices with 3D-printers. In Italy, a proactive journalist, Milano Maker Lab and engineering company Isinnova, collaborated to develop a prototype for 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 they typically sell for. Talk about disrupting profiteering models!
Beyond transforming product design, testing and prototyping, 3D printing might reinvent traditional manufacturing and supply chains as well. A $1.7 trillion opportunity, according to Andre Wegner, 3D printing can now be done with more than 750 materials including plastics and resins, metals like titanium, biologics like cells, agricultural waste. The ability for 3D printing protocols to spin up manufacturing faster than traditional production lines means that companies are better positioned to address an unanticipated, potentially, thousand-fold increase in demand for supplies. Which is great, because in the current situation of 3D printing companies like Massachusetts-based Markforged and Formlabs are both making personal protective equipment as well as nasal swabs to use for COVID-19 testing.
The global shortages have also prompted governments like the US to enact wartime measures – through invoking the Defense Production Act – prompting automakers to investigate opportunities to pivot production to healthcare devices. Volkswagen and Ford have reportedly committed to identifying options, creating a task force to explore 3D printing technologies to make hospital ventilators. Adaptable and diversified global supply chains are becoming mission critical, as we anticipate more frequent catastrophes and pandemics.
9. Supply Chains
While not technically an “exponential technology”, I am including supply chain management here because it’s one of the key business processes to be impacted by Covid. The past two decades we have almost universally shifted from stockpiling provisional inventory “just-in-case” – with such measures being lambasted as costly and inefficient – to cross-border outsourcing and “just-in-time” delivery. But in moments of crisis, our priorities tend to shift radically, and we’re witnessing an almost comically renewed preference for hoarding and security (I’m talking about you, toilet paper hoarders!).
Just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing, pioneered by the Japanese to reduce production times in the 1960s, has been adopted by many progressive tech and materials companies of late, with Amazon being the most notable success story. But with third-party sellers contributing to 82% of Amazon’s sales, they are highly dependent on parts arriving “just in time”, often from thousands of miles away. Employing this strategy increases efficiency and decreases inventory costs, but requires an accurate forecast of demand.
In terms of provision staples, half of the food consumed in the UK is imported, with basics like wheat and some meat flying from the other side of the world. This makes the global supply chain particularly vulnerable to a domino effect, if even one supplier is delayed. This virus is a particular challenge for a free-market, just in time-based logistics network, demonstrating how uniquely precarious the system is, with little slack or reserves to fall back on in the event of an external shock. This risk is becoming evident in a world where global transport is hindered and fears of ill-mobility drive consumers to panic purchase.
Companies like 3M however, have demonstrated how well equipped they were to handle the unexpected explosion of demand, or what they modeled as an “X factor”. Following the SARs epidemic, it built a surge capacity into its respirator factories around the world. And unlike many companies that have moved production to low-cost countries, 3M sources the materials for its respirators near its assembly plants and serves customers in proximity, avoiding the reliance on distant vendors who may be subject to tariffs or export bans.
What I expect to happen as a result of this pandemic is a reshuffling of global outsourcing; a recognition that some degree of both inventory and local production are necessary to hedge risks of global supply chain shutdowns, curbing the race to the bottom of outsourcing for cost minimization. Some production will go local, variants and choice will be reduced to enable more efficient supply chain (fewer options is actually a good thing, the paradox of choice can be crippling!), and an increase in automation through robotics to enable production efficiency will undoubtedly result.
10. Robotics – Robots for Non-Essential Services & Human Support
Amazon employs around 650,000 humans and 200,000 robots—and costs have gone down as robots have gone up, demonstrating the success of robotic integration in the traditional supply chain. In the case of Covid, medical robots (who are impervious to cross-infections) can be real game changers preventing collateral damage in outbreaks. These robots can be equipped with medical devices like stethoscopes and other sensors to enable basic diagnostics and vitals, and clinicians can communicate with patients via a screen through a video conference. Robots can help by running errands, like Diligent Robotics’ “helper droid” who can help nurses around hospitals. The startup’s bot “Moxi” is “equipped with a flexible arm, gripper hand and full mobility so it can hunt down lightweight medical resources, navigate a clinic’s hallways and drop them off for the nurse”. With the world facing a critical shortage of medical care professionals, Moxi could help healthcare centers use their staff as efficiently as possible.
11. Drones – Drone Deliveries
ARK Invest’s research predicts automation could add $800 billion to US GDP over the next 5 years, and $12 trillion during the next 15 years. On this trajectory, GDP would end up being 40 percent higher with automation than without it. So along with smart robotics, I expect drone deliveries to skyrocket.
Recent regulatory change in both the UK and the US has already authorized the testing of “last-mile delivery” using drones. Companies like Amazon could use some combination of autonomous trucks and drones to deliver your products, exactly where you are, at any time of day, for up to 10% of the cost of current logistics systems. Drones are already being used for blood and medical supplies delivery in Africa and the US through Zipline, an electric drone company providing on-demand logistics support to regions disconnected from central medical facilities. And UPS is now working with German startup Wingcopter to develop a new type of drone for commercial deliveries. Wingcopter’s electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft has a range of up to 75 miles and can achieve speeds as high as 150 miles per hour, in conditions as formidable as wind speeds up to 45 miles per hour. The aircraft has been used to deliver critical medical supplies and life-saving equipment in hard to reach areas, including through partnerships with UNICEF and other relief organizations.
12. Virtual Reality – VR-based education, social events, concerts
During these unprecedented times, virtual reality (VR) 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 and budgets. I expect that we’ll see VR programs that help with the socialization and mental health for people in isolation. Imagine putting on glasses, and suddenly you are in a classroom or conference, or even a positive psychology intervention.
ENGAGE is a VR education and corporate training platform, allowing educators and companies to host meetings, presentations, classes, and events. rumii is a social-virtual reality space that enables people to collaborate and communicate in one room as though they are in the same physical location. Oxford Medical Simulation (OMS) uses virtual reality simulation to train healthcare professionals to provide world-class patient management without risking lives. OMS even offers personalized feedback, performance metrics, and a guided self-reflective debrief, and enables educators to build their own VR curriculum based on specialty and learner competence.
And it’s not just education and training that the Covid lockdown is having an unprecedented impact on. Perhaps even more profoundly, the events and entertain universe is seeing a real existential change. VR however, offers a solution to the travel bans companies are facing and to the restrictions imposed on large gatherings. HTC has reacted to the situation by hosting the first fully-virtual industry conference, and AltspaceVR brands itself as the “easiest way to meet people from around the world”. Not only can you play interactive games, but you can also attend free live events with comedians, DJ’s, authors, and celebrities from the comfort of your own home. It might just be the next gen tool to resolve our greatest mobility challenges in the next decade.
The Future Post-COVID Looks a Bit Different…
So this all begs the question, is this the end of the world as we know it? And, equally, is this crisis marking a new beginning? A forced metamorphosis, if you will? Perhaps the 2019 installation of Burning Man – the “metamorphosis theme, celebrating change and an exploration of uncertainty” – was more prescient than we realized at the time. Drawn directly from the Burning Man archive, the theme was aimed at taking stock at current behaviours, acknowledging that the political, cultural and ecological landscape is in “a cascade of tipping points”. “Transformation happens whether we believe in it or not, but if we have learned anything in our Burning Man experience, it is that we have a say in our own futures, the agency is ours if we choose to pursue it.” There’s no playbook for this scenario, but genuinely pivotal global moments, watersheds and turning points are truly rare, so I expect an evolution of new conventions and tools arising as a result. If it’s true that there will be no return to the pre-Covid-19 era, we will need to work together to engineer a future that is better, healthier, more inclusive and stronger than before.