domino-triggered Rube Goldberg machine
PHOTO: Wesley Fryer

While the world grapples with the effects of the COVID-19 virus, technology is getting an ultimate test as it's called in to support the global efforts of governments, medical professionals, researchers and businesses around the globe.

History has proven that with any crisis, new opportunities and ways of doing things emerge. When the dust finally settles, the changes in behaviors and new working models going into practice now may actually become the new norm. A lot of the digital technology that has been waiting in the wings, struggling to go mainstream, may finally reach a tipping point of adoption.

Will it be a pandemic that pushes digital transformation to an extreme?

The Home Is the New Office

The effectiveness of work from home has been a debated topic for decades. Only about a quarter of the US workforce (23.7%) works from home on a consistent basis. Concerns around productivity, collaboration, connectivity and distractions have all been cited as reasons work from home is not effective.

However, it has taken a pandemic to force a distributed workforce to come together and use the collaboration tools to their full potential. An estimated 900 million people around the world are now working remotely to slow down the spread of the virus. Tools like Zoom, Slack, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams are being rediscovered for their richness in supporting video, messaging, conferencing, document sharing, virtual white boarding and many other features.

The result? Work is actually getting done! And benefits around flexibility and reduced commute times may actually increase productivity and effectiveness.

As we begin to better understand the real potential of telework, we could now be looking at the future of work. In this new working paradigm, offices may become a fixture of the past and relegated to an occasional pitstop to greet colleagues and process administrative tasks.

Related Article: The Remote Working Pendulum Swings Again: 9 Lessons Learned

Contactless Payments Become the Norm

Online shopping has increased significantly as some retailers are forced to close their doors and many consumers become leery of venturing out to grocery and other necessity stores. This has driven an increased demand for online payment providers. The volume of payments has reached levels typically only seen on Black Friday or Cyber Monday.

Payment providers are used to planning for seasonal spikes in traffic and can reserve additional capacity accordingly. But many payment providers don’t know exactly when to prepare for a surge in payments outside of these predictable patterns or for how long it will be needed.

For instance, Italy, one of the countries hardest hit by the virus, experienced an 80% jump in ecommerce during the two weeks after lockdown. Now that larger countries like India have gone on lockdown, these populations will also move online. As the domino effect continues, will the payment processors scale to service these peaks in demand?

Many consumers are ditching cash during the outbreak, choosing instead to pay electronically. Merchants and businesses that only operate in cash are racing to enable electronic and online payments.

Will this be the tipping point for the US to fully embrace online and contactless payments?

Related Article: Virtual Workspaces: How to Do More Than Just Meetings Online

Fintech Firms Finally Disrupt

Many fintech firms have been patiently waiting in the wings for an opportunity to unseat traditional banking and financial services paradigms. No one would have predicted it would take a virus that quarantines people to be the catalyst.

As consumers and businesses get more comfortable executing transactions, trades and other activities from the comfort of their living room, the activities that require face to face interaction will diminish.

Symphony, a financial services messaging company that offers encrypted chat-based collaboration services, has seen surges of messaging activity from 80% to 500%. Even more impactful, many banks have made it possible to send attachments in the messaging platform, a feature that had been highly restricted prior to the virus, allowing PDFs, Word files, PowerPoint, etc. to be sent directly to customers. During a 2-week period, Symphony reported clients averaged a combined 800,000 attachments per day.

Blend, a San Francisco-based digital lending platform that provides online mortgages, home equity loans, HELOCs, deposit accounts and now auto loans, is also seeing an uptick in usage. Blend's technology uses verified data to eliminate steps and the passing around of documents, streamlining the application process for consumers and reducing origination costs. Blend was processing about $2 billion in consumer loans daily prior to the virus but is now reporting loan volumes up to $9 billion daily.

Related Article: The Future of Banking: No Shoes, No Shirt, No Tellers

Blockchain's Back in Town

Since 2009, blockchain has slowly infiltrated global supply chains, but it has yet to become a mainstream technology despite its potential. In the wake of the coronavirus, blockchain could get a new lease on life, as the applications for transparency and chain of custody become more relevant than ever.

Blockchain technology can be leveraged to provide solutions that limit the expansion of the virus. Blockchain can play a vital role in securing our food and medical supply chain, accelerating the use of digital payments, tracking medical records and many other areas.

The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) created guidelines for the coronavirus pandemic, listing blockchain managers in food and agricultural distribution as critical infrastructure workers. The IBM Food Trust is using a blockchain-based platform to track the movement of food products from farm to table. This becomes even more compelling in times of worldwide pandemic. Many US organizations such as Albertsons, Walmart, Nestle, Drakes, Raw Seafoods, National Fisheries Institute and others are utilizing the platform.

The cost of foodborne illnesses can be as high as $93 billion annually and food fraud incidents cost the US $15 billion each year. The coronavirus could be a catalyst for further adoption of distributed ledger technology in the agriculture supply chain to create a safer, more efficient and more sustainable food system.

Chinese tech giant tech giant Huawei is touting the use of blockchain technology to drive efforts to combat the spread of the coronavirus. 

Related Article: Blockchain Will Stall Until it Finds Its Killer App

Wearables Help to Save Lives

Wearables have mostly been about fashion and haven't really played a critical role in people’s lives. However, the spread of the virus has created new use cases for connected devices.

Hong Kong is using IoT based, electronic wristbands, called TRACEsafe, as part of its effort to enforce quarantines and reduce the spread of COVID-19. The wristbands are connected to a smartphone app and will be used to make sure people actually stay at home.

Tech firm WiSilica created the wristbands as well as a patented, location-aware IoT platform that integrates control, sensing and location in one place. The wristbands were initially invented to track infants and then spread to elderly homes and institutions. Upon the coronavirus outbreak, the bracelets became even more relevant as a means for governments to manage, track and enforce their quarantine programs.

Earlier in the year, researchers began investigating the possibility of tracking flu outbreaks by analyzing Fitbit data. Now the Scripps Research Translational Institute has launched a new program to explore this across users with Fitbits, Apple Watches and other wearable devices to quickly detect the emergence of fast-spreading viral illnesses such COVID-19.

Forcing Policies Around Data Privacy

Data protection and privacy around technology evolution is an ongoing debate that has been stuck in political ideology. The current pandemic may force policies and regulations to be accelerated around the use of personal data collection.

There is clearly a dark side to allowing governments and corporations to access personal data and leverage video monitoring surveillance to track citizens. While it has already been in practice in various ways, the current situation has amplified its use. China has clearly been the most aggressive, but other nations such as Israel, Singapore and South Korea are also using a combination of video camera footage, location data and even credit card information, to track COVID-19 in their countries.

Clear guidelines and governance need to be put in place as to how and when this data is collected and used. Certainly, in times of crisis, allowing more liberal use of personal data might make sense in the short-term, but policies similar to General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) need to be in place to oversee the collection of personal health or other private data.

Supercomputing to the Rescue

The White House recently announced the launch of the COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium to provide researchers around the globe access to the world’s most powerful high-performance computing. Companies such as IBM, AWS, Google, Microsoft, HP and academic institutions like MIT and RPI have joined the consortium.

The consortium pools together 16 supercomputers that together offer a total of over 330 PetaFLOPS of compute power, a combination of 775,000 CPU cores as well as 34,000 GPUs. The supercomputers will be used to run research simulations in epidemiology, bioinformatics and molecular modeling.

Researchers are invited to submit COVID-19 related research proposals to the consortium via an online portal which will then be reviewed for matching with computing resources from one of the partner institutions.

All of these experiments are meant to greatly speed up research into COVID-19 as well as possible treatments. For all of us, let’s hope it happens fast.