Life around the world has changed dramatically since the beginning of this year. The worst pandemic of the last hundred years has come as a rude shock to humanity. Living in locked down cities, working from home, quarantined or hospitalised—millions of people are discovering how fragile life is even in 2020. What we are also discovering is how technology is an integral part of our lives. It’s technology which helps us stay fed and clothed, educated and healed. Technology helps us communicate and travel in relative comfort to previous generations in similar circumstances. That technology speeds up change was always known, but in recent months, we have seen change speed up technology.
“Let’s go invent tomorrow instead of worrying about what happened yesterday,” said Steve Jobs twenty years ago. In these troubled times, this need is felt by all. While it is an accepted fact that technology grows exponentially and human ingenuity leverages fundamental science to alter lives, yet the recent Covid-19 virus has triggered acceleration in certain areas of our day-to-day work and life. Some of the services powered by recent advances in science have fired technology on all cylinders. The post-Covid world will see an acceleration of certain trends. The most significant technology of this century is the internet and the various web-based services. The pandemic has only made us realise that the internet is indeed as important in our day-to-day life as food, shelter, clothing, health and education. Many of our basic needs are being fulfilled because of internet today. Imagine a life without access to Google or Facebook or WhatsApp. IP (Internet Protocol) is the bedrock of almost everything we do today. Banking and online cashless transactions are growing exponentially. During recent lockdowns, many fence-sitters and naysayers have adopted online access to services and goods.
Connectivity and communication have kept us sane in the last few months as we live through isolation and social distancing. Ninety-eight per cent of families around the world are connected via a phone. From a mere billion phones 25 years ago, we have close to 6 billion users today. It took us two decades to move from 1G to 4G, but it is taking less than five years to shift to 5G. This wireless technology will not only enhance speed manifold but will fast-track big data and Internet of Things, and in a way, usher in the true age of broadband with its bag of magic tricks. Simultaneously, hyper-speed gigabit fiber is connecting homes to bring unlimited data across media and platforms through a simple fiber optic cable. By 2025, it is estimated half the world will be using ultra high-speed internet globally. Since the pandemic, data consumption in certain countries, including India, has almost doubled as millions work from home, or study online or just while away their time waiting for normalcy. One study in the US says hundreds of millions of people are spending 12 hours a day staring at a screen. Data is indeed the new oil and internet the new power. It took a virus to make us realise the significance of a connected universe.
Of all the things which are undergoing a complete makeover in the post-Covid world are commerce, education and health. According to estimates, e-commerce was just $50 billion in 2018 in India but will touch $300 billion by 2022. More than half the world’s children are now learning online and several millions of them will continue with distance learning even after the Covid crisis is over. Cloud computing will move from enterprise to home within a couple of years. We have already seen an unprecedented rise in videoconferencing and live chats in the last few months. Zoom has become synonymous with video conferences and is currently valued at over $125 billion. Microsoft (Teams), Google (Meet), Facebook, Cisco (WebEx) and our own Jio are fast catching up with video chat and conferencing. We are expected to send 300 billion emails and 2 trillion text messages this year. Between the top ten tech companies in the world, they have a market capitalisation of $8 trillion. A large part of entertainment is shifting online. Gaming, video streaming and virtual concerts will take as much of our time as cinemas, live entertainment and amusement parks. Information, communication and entertainment (ICE) are taking a leap forward with technological advances.
Health obviously becomes the focus during a pandemic. We have seen in the past few months how technology has been leveraged to increase production of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) kits, ventilators, hand sanitisers and other disinfectants. Diagnostics, in any case, has changed in the last two decades with computerised labs and sophisticated digital measuring devices from a simple infra-red thermometer to artificial intelligence (AI)-driven surgical aids. Computer Assisted Tomography (CAT) Scan, ultrasound imaging and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) have revolutionised diagnostics. In the years to come, big data analytics will help in the diagnosis and treatment of all diseases. One of the fastest growing sectors in the coming years will be telemedicine as more and more patients are able to access medical help remotely using simple apps on a mobile phone. India’s ambitious public health programme Ayushman Bharat envisages extensive use of telemedicine and remote diagnostics from the village-level upwards. It’s a matter of months when by using apps like Arogya Setu (for Covid-19) and the National Health Portal (voluntary), all health records can be stored. This will help in both diagnosis and treatment of patients, irrespective of their location. Eventually, even prescriptions can be issued electronically and medicines bought both offline as well as online. Healthcare is one area which will continue to see more and faster technology intervention.
From simple blood tests for common ailments to DNA profiling, it is the digital technology and computers which have made it possible. Everyone around the world is praying for the discovery of a Covid vaccine. The usual time taken to develop a new vaccine is between five to 10 years. However, thanks supercomputing and big data analytics, several governments, pharmaceutical companies and scientists are hoping to have a vaccine out within a year. Similarly, existing drug molecules are being tested through computer simulation, lab tests and field trials to evolve a new cure for the deadly virus.
Education is one of the fundamental needs of modern societies. After months of disruption, most schools and colleges have been offering classes online. Examinations and tests in many cases are now held via web-based classes. Online learning is a great asset in a poor country like India. With applications like Byju’s, Unacademy and Upgrad, millions of Indians are now helping themselves to excelling in their studies. Even as schools and colleges open following the lockdown, online classes and courses will only increase their presence. Pedagogy is being redefined by technology. Teachers are retaining themselves to use technology as a force multiplier in education. It is not as if online education will replace schools and colleges, but it will supplement traditional learning, and in most cases, give a chance to millions to learn and reskill themselves who otherwise would have been denied this opportunity.
Life during and after the pandemic has changed consumer behaviour forever. Locked up in their homes, millions of people reached out over the internet for their daily needs. For the first time, interacting with recorded voices (AI-driven bots) may have intimidated consumers to begin with, but I observe many digital ignorants have begun using remote tools. From buying groceries to reading newspapers, video chats and over-the-top entertainment, a whole generation is getting used to virtual interface with family, friends, shopkeepers, service providers, et al. It’s not that we will never return to a world of contact, touch and feel, but in the years to come, human interaction will be an add-on to services. Voice cognition will help a lot in making the internet and web-based services more user-friendly. AI mimicking human responses will be the change agent of the immediate future.
We have been reading about how AI will revolutionise our lives in the 21st century. While Asimov’s world of robotics is still far away, we have seen AI unobtrusively enter our lives. Our mobile phones, gadgets and household appliances are all being powered by AI-driven smart chips. AI is all around us. It’s in machines, robots and even our smartphones. Bots, algorithmic trading and machine learning are visible on every shop floor in small and large factories. While self-driving cars are still a few years away, today’s cars are already smart enough for driving assistance and diagnostics. Smart cities are taking root too. These changes will only accelerate in the post-pandemic world. Supply chains, logistics and consumer interface are all dependent on technology. Personalised service and products are not just a pipe dream. Millions of people will continue to be gainfully employed working from home. Even as millions face redundancies, sunrise sectors like fintech, e-commerce and services are opening an equal number, if not more, opportunities.
As AI, machine learning and robotics become mainstream in our factories and production facilities, a massive amount of reskilling is required. While in the short term there may be redundancies, history tells us that every technological leap from the Industrial Revolution to the advent of the digital age has actually created more employment. Life after the pandemic will, in a matter of years, definitely improve exponentially thanks to technology.
In the hi-tech world, cybersecurity remains an area of concern. Governments and regulators must be responsive to change, both socially and technically. A forward-looking legal framework and regulatory regime is required as we become more and more dependent on technology. What the pandemic has done is to collapse the time lag between social change and technology. I have seen how the isolation during the pandemic has compelled many digital ignorants to discover the power of simple technologies, like online payment or video chats.
Our homes and workplaces, entertainment and information systems, health, education, governance are all smarter because of technology. Even as we come closer virtually, there is an alienation. Interpersonal relationships are as much cemented by technology as they are ruptured.