Sometimes, it takes adverse events — such as war — to accelerate innovation. Pandemics also may play the role of innovation accelerator — the vast majority of 100 technology experts responding to a survey by the Atlantic Council believe that the responses to the coronavirus pandemic will accelerate innovation significantly in the future of work, data and AI, trust and supply chains, and health and medicine.
The experts also anticipate that the most impactful innovations in the next two-to-five years would come from developments related to data and AI as well as to health technologies. They expect innovation in the future of work and in supply chains, too, but are slightly less optimistic.
“As the virus imposes heavy demands on healthcare systems, strains international supply chains, and changes the way we work, it will spur innovation in those areas,” the report’s authors state. “Likewise, as cloud infrastructure is forced to cope with increased traffic and public health professionals strive to harness massive datasets to fight the pandemic, developments in the fields of data and AI will accelerate. With changing priorities, innovation in space is likely to stagnate or at least remain unchanged.”
It’s always difficult to determine the long-term impact of an event. But the following developments are unfolding in real-time, which are reshaping our trajectory with information technology:
The stigma over working from home has dissolved. Technology has made working from home — or any remoter locations — a no-brainer for years. But companies have always been hesitant to trust off-premises workers. For example, software development work, which lends itself quite easily to remote work, was still mainly conducted on-premises in normal times. Survey data from Stack Overflow finds that out of almost 89,000 developers participating in its most recent survey, 45% worked remotely at least part of the time — a sizeable segment, but not a majority.
Supply chains aren’t as flexible as thought. In this digital age, we assumed we reached a point in which we assumed our supply chains were as flexible and nimble as a yoga instructor. But the recent great toilet paper shortage is an illustration of how supply chains are, to some extent, hardwired to preset business realities. As Will Oremus observes in a post on Medium, at least half of bathroom supply chains are aligned and programmed to serve commercial customers. When everyone was sent home to work, the toilet paper supply chain wasn’t ready to follow them. “The industry can’t just flip a switch,” Oremus writes. “Shifting to retail channels would require new relationships and contracts between suppliers, distributors, and stores; different formats for packaging and shipping; new trucking routes — all for a bulky product with lean profit margins. If toilet paper manufacturers spend a bunch of money now to refocus on the retail channel, they’ll face the same problem in reverse once people head back to work again.”
Artificial intelligence is a force of good. AI is finally being employed where it can gain high visibility — and may plaudits, versus the nonstop thrashing it has been taking over privacy and bias concerns. Here are just a few examples of AI being pressed into service at a moment’s notice:
- Mount Sinai Health System in New York City has partnered with Sana Labs to launch Project Florence, an AI-based personalized learning platform to enhance the skills of nurses treating COVID-19 patients. The platform is also being made available for free to hospitals around the world to improve medical response and care during the pandemic. After users complete an AI-powered adaptive assessment that measures their knowledge, the platform recommends personalized content in real time to address individual skills gaps.
- Qure.ai, a healthcare AI startup created by Fractal, has developed additional capabilities for its AI-based chest X-ray automation and interpretation solution that could help reduce COVID-19 induced burden on healthcare infrastructure.
- On the corporate scene, KPMG is applying AI approaches to rapidly analyze contractual obligations and termination clauses, as industries face supply chain delays, cancelled events and other roadblocks. Perhaps it can assist with the toilet paper issues mentioned above. KPMG also reports developing AI-based tools to supplementing employee and customer call centers to analyze and triage issues and questions. This includes deploying voice and text chatbots to field the high volume of inquiries from internal and external stakeholders. AI is also serving to boost financial forecasting, by leveraging curated external data sets and advanced analytical techniques to measuring and forecast the impact of COVID-19 on businesses.
The three areas described above — telework, supply chains and AI — are just part of the changing picture for technology. Covid-19 may be a tough challenge, but today’s technology is being employed in new and unforeseen ways to overcome this wily opponent.