So far, technology has been a crucial element of our response to the coronavirus pandemic. We have what we need to work and learn remotely, we have tech platforms for science and information sharing and we are using artificial intelligence to sift through possible treatments and even vaccines for COVID-19.
Today and tomorrow, I’m going to have conversations about the tech we have to deal with the pandemic and what innovations the pandemic itself might lead to. To do that, I spoke with the show’s favorite futurist — Amy Webb, founder of the Future Today Institute. She says that in a lot of ways, we’re lucky this is happening in 2020 and not 30 years ago. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Amy Webb: We have remote conferencing tools that are either cheap or free, collaborative working tools, online storage, Slack for group discussions. We’ve got those kinds of tools. We already have artificial intelligence that can be used to speed scientific discovery, and we have advanced manufacturing systems. So, in a lot of ways, the technology that powers our everyday lives in times when we don’t have a pandemic is already in place.
Molly Wood: What about the technology that isn’t well-deployed in America or is still nascent? Could drones be delivering everyone food and medicine were it not for policy? Could autonomous cars be making grocery deliveries?
Webb: I think some of the technology is probably available and ready for deployment but was awaiting regulatory approval. A lot of our cities and municipalities don’t have local restrictions in place, or policies in place that will allow land-based drones. We could find out pretty soon that we need those delivery vehicles to help us out. One of the things that I think we could see as a result of the coronavirus is an acceleration of approvals. I’ll give you one other quick example. Amazon has had a cloud-based robotics platform in the works for a while. Theoretically, this would help to enable warehouse robots — the robots that would work in warehouses and other places. Amazon announced that it’s hiring 100,000 workers, and I wonder if in the process, they’re also going to speed the deployment of some of that technology, and that could be both good and bad.
Wood: What can be bad about it?
Webb: The good parts are that we would need fewer humans to help stem the significant and potentially crushing demand of online purchasing, so that’s good. However, that also potentially puts us on a path to much, much faster workforce automation, which potentially means an accelerated track to the permanent loss of lots of jobs.
Related links: More insight from Molly Wood
I know that was a dark ending. Tomorrow’s podcast will have a lot more therapy from Amy Webb, I promise. We’re also at a really pivotal time in medicine. The MIT Tech Review list of 10 breakthrough technologies of 2020 includes AI-discovered drug molecules. We’re already seeing researchers try to use AI to sift through thousands of options for targeting medicines in hopes of finding a treatment or a vaccine much sooner.
The coronavirus is changing things that in some ways we did not think would ever change. One of those things is the ad dominance and ability to print money no matter what. On Tuesday, Facebook said that even though its engagement was way up as everyone swaps photos of their homemade bread, ad revenue was falling fast. On Wednesday, Variety reported that ad revenue is, in fact, “falling off a cliff” and that Google and Facebook could see a combined drop of about $44 billion in revenue. The piece notes that both companies, however, will still be massively profitable.
The World Health Organization is turning to the tech industry for software. WHO is partnering with Facebook and Microsoft, TikTok, WeChat, Twitter, Pinterest and others on a hackathon to create projects around several themes — entertainment, health, education, community and vulnerable populations. Top projects will be announced April 3, and I’m kind of excited to see what the new golden age of technology is going to come up with.