Say hello to the next normal!
The answer to containing COVID-19 is still elusive, but humans cannot be kept under lockdown for long. They are restless. They are ingenious. They crave freedom. In early May, we began to see the first glimpses of the role that technology will play in putting humans back to where they belong: At work, play, hanging around with family and friends, taking a walk in the park and participating in community events.
Technology may not return life to what it was before COVID-19, but it has opened the doors to the next normal without exposing us to health threats. And it is an extremely interesting world that is unfolding.
Technology is being pushed to its very limits, to create interventions that will revive society, economy, employment and human welfare. My favorite example of what the future may look like is Spot, the Boston Dynamics robot that patrolled Singapore’s Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park. Spot wandered the park using a camera to, well, spot people and alert them to social distancing using a pre-recorded message.[i] The robot will save lives.
The other example of the next normal is even more fascinating. It comes from the world of sport. Tour de Suisse launched its first all-digital race with the best pro teams in the world participating. This year, the legendary cycling race was renamed the Digital Swiss 5. It connected pros on their racing bicycles to smart roller trainers. The cyclists saw the virtualized race track on a screen before them, in the safety of their homes. Software systems applied resistance to the bicycles depending on the terrain the cyclist was traversing. All the action came alive for television viewers and participants in a race that mimicked the actual event.[ii] This is what Tour de Suisse looked like last year https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CYNOjiIKVIo and here is what it looked last April, in the time of COVID-19: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cmj5lZkIUbI . Not bad for a start. And the best part is, no one watching it will go “Wow! That’s extraordinary!” because we are already familiar with the technologies that fuse reality with digital. It was waiting to happen and COVID-19 tilted the balance.
Some of these technologies have been in the pipeline for several years. Rio Tinto, the Australian mining giant generates 2.4 terabytes of data every minute from its mining equipment and sensors in one location. The data is used in real-time by operators, sitting 1,500 km away from the physical mine, in complete safety, to manage the equipment.[iii] Technically, we could have mining experts sitting in Brazil or Belize operating the same equipment. In other words, only knowledge workers need not work from home. Technology can create jobs that once depended on proximity to the workplace anywhere in the world.
Rio Tinto, Spot and Digital Swiss 5 are indicators of the next normal — a world that uses technology to reshape life on earth. Amidst the gloom of COVID–19, it is difficult to miss the happy fact that the pandemic is accelerating technology adoption and progress.
We have seen how businesses moved their employees out of offices and into remote work environments that keep them safe and productive. Millions of enterprise workers in financial services, retail, education, oil & gas, etc., have begun to work from home (WFH), keeping the lights on for their organizations and ensuring there is no break in customer service. We may not put people back on planes and into trains without jeopardizing their health at the moment — we need medical science to solve this problem — but businesses can use technology to not only sustain consumption, but improve it. An example of this is education. With children not having to travel to school and saving time on things like assembly, they will have more time on their hands. The question is, how can the education industry package itself so it becomes more interesting and the extra time is used to increase consumption?
Let’s ask another interesting question: If you designed a company today, and wanted to work within the limitations of COVID-19 and, equally, leverage the opportunities presented by the virus, what would the company look like? Chances are that this company would use AR and VR extensively to create almost-real experiences, it would live in the cloud so that its intent-aware IT infrastructure and systems could be managed remotely, it would have intelligent, contactless and always-on processes, and it would ensure that its employees worked from safe environments. It isn’t absurd to think about AR and VR substituting for reality. Take a look at how realistic virtual environments are being shaped dynamically with this scenario created for PlayStation 5: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qC5KtatMcUw&feature=youtu.be&t=206 The realism is extraordinary and tells us that CGI has come of age.
Let’s get back to the central question: Can technology be relied upon to revive society, economy, employment and human welfare? The answer is “Yes”, but it won’t be the world we once knew.
Founder, Chairman and Managing Director, Microland Ltd