A global, novel virus that keeps us contained in our homes, away from work and society, is already reorienting our relationship to government, the outside world, and each other. These changes may feel unsettling, but they are likely to give rise to a new paradigm for societies all over the world, redefining how we live and work.

As we navigate this ‘new normal’, it is vital to find new and innovative ways to rebuild economies, run businesses and connect with family, that circumvent the disruption. One way to do this is through ‘digital restoration’ – utilising technology to bridge the gap that social distancing has created, and continue with daily life.

Since the emergence of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) almost a decade ago, there have been many debates around its disruptive effects. In some cases, these debates have resulted in criticism of the 4IRs ability to destabilise employment, business sustainability, and global prosperity. However, the current coronavirus pandemic is casting a new lens on the power of technology to assess how it can be utilised as a force for global restoration, allowing businesses to continue to operate, providing communities with tools to keep them connected, and restructuring supply chains to overcome the recent disruption to global markets. Here are five 4IR technologies that will help drive digital restoration and allow life to go on, behind closed doors.

Blockchain – Blockchain technology enables the secure transfer of data, digitally. Its applications already reach across transactions, supply chain management and logistics and although it has long been ear-marked as a technology capable of redefining global trade, its potential has escalated during the global shut down.

Blockchain allows ‘blocks’ of data to be passed along a chain, secure from tampering and with a time and location stamp that proves authenticity. Therefore, outside of the above applications, blockchain could also help facilitate trade through remotely signed contracts, or document exchange and even enable workforce training and development across a global company, securely. It can also process certification and qualification through its ability to verify each block that joins the chain and the evolution of blockchain platforms make it user-friendly and therefore highly deployable.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) – AI provides the means through which to execute roles or responsibilities deemed risky for humans. It allows machines to learn from data patterns and then make structured decisions or perform tasks. Widely used in manufacturing, AI machines are being considered in wider contexts, particularly as we examine every role in society against the risk of spreading infection. For example, AI robots capable of fulfilling a care role have been in the market for years. ‘Patient engagement robots’ like US-made Mabu, work as a personal healthcare companion for vulnerable people at home. The robot is able to converse with patients, remind them to take their prescriptions, and even contact the human’s caregiver if needed. This reduces the need for humans to go into a home, potentially bringing the virus with them.

AI’s other applications include its ability to support autonomous vehicle operation, allowing people to travel safely without fear of exposure to the virus, or its use on the factory floor, allowing remote decision making and facilitating continued production without exposing a human workforce to the risk of infection.

The Internet of Things (IoT) – The IoT explains the ability to digitally network objects together, allowing remote operation, automation and facilitating a range of smart operations. For example, the IoT is able to connect every area of production to facilitate ‘smart factory systems’ in which every element of operation is monitored, gathering huge amounts of data that allow smarter and more informed decisions to be made. For instance, Siemens’ MindSphere, allow manufacturers with a global footprint to operate and control multiple facilities simultaneously from anywhere in the world, thus reducing the need for close-human working whilst allowing products to be made when the full workforce is unable to. It can also be used to ensure compliance to quarantine measures, or to remotely monitor high-risk patients not yet in hospital.

Big Data – Behind the power of the IoT is the ability to collect and analyse vast data sets. Mobile devices automatically collect vast amounts of data that can now be used to understand how the virus spread and perhaps provide ideas of how to limit its impact. For example, a recent study by MIT to understand the spread of dengue fever in Singapore was based on analysis of mobile phone data on location and movement that allowed researchers to track the spread of the disease.

Big data is also being used in conjunction with AI capabilities to improve surveillance that helps identify those with symptoms before they feel ill. For example, China installed thermal scanners at the entrance of train stations to take the temperatures of passengers to prevent sick people travelling and spreading the disease. The collection of such vast data sets provides more information for researchers to draw results from, allowing advice to be more accurate. AI specialist Megvii is taking this concept further, working on a solution that “integrates body detection, face detection and dual sensing via infrared cameras and visible light” to help staff working at airports and train stations “to swiftly identify people who have elevated body temperatures”.

Additive Manufacturing: Additive manufacturing techniques such as 3D printing allow a product or material to be made be a machine, only requiring humans to set the task and design brief. 3D printing has the ability to restore many areas of the economy. In the short term, companies such as Lonati SpA are 3D printing ventilator valves to address domestic shortages and save lives, whilst advances in 3D printed chemicals are opening the door for redefining the pharmaceutical sector, enabling drug manufacturers to 3D print medicines, allowing personal customisation at no extra cost. This is something Spritam has been doing since 2016 – 3D printing FDA approved epilepsy drugs tailored to the individuals. 3D printing can also be used to ‘print’ houses, factories, cars and machinery – with very little human input.

No one knows exactly how or when this life altering virus will subside, but it is likely to redefine how we live and work – changing society, government, healthcare, the economy and our lifestyles in the process.

Although the world’s attention is rightly focussed on minimising the impact of the coronavirus, it is important to find solutions that allow industries and economies to keep going throughout the pandemic and restore previous levels of operation. Doing so will prevent millions more falling into poverty and dying from secondary effects of the disease.

Crisis often present the opportunity for reform, and it is possible that the virus allows just that – the opportunity to leave behind archaic structures or processes and replace them with digital technologies that reform, drive and promote productivity, efficiency and inclusivity.


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