This month, the scary video of the New York Police Department’s robot dog was all over the internet. When DigiDog walked out of a public housing building in a creepy way, many people thought that the “Terminator” future had come true and that people were doomed.
People are not doomed. But all the noise made me think about how to judge the good and bad future of tech in the wake of the pandemic.
This will be a rough time, just like after the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 (also after World War I) when a lot of big changes happened quickly. Here are five of the most important things I think we need to think about after a pandemic.
Telecommuting. One of the most important changes over the past year has been the move of work from the office to the home. Many jobs still need people to be there in person, but the number of people who don’t have to be there is huge and growing.
Even though they complain about being on Zoom all the time, these so-called knowledge workers have realized that it can be cheaper and more productive to have a more flexible workforce in terms of place and time.
No CEO I’ve talked to in the past few months thinks that their company will have a lot of employees at their headquarters at the same time in the future. This week, Facebook said that its employees could work from home full-time. This will become more and more common.
Even though there are some problems with working from home, like the basic human need to connect in person, the mountains of data collected over the past year show that working from home can be more productive. This information will lead to all kinds of new ideas and more work that can be done from home.
There are many things to worry about here, like the constant tracking of workers and how well they do their jobs at all levels of the workplace. Also, when judging worker productivity, managers will rely much less on anecdotal evidence and more on actual performance, which can be a good thing.
Telehealth. Healthcare was another area that was ready for change before the pandemic because it had been slow to adopt technology for a long time. Big companies like Microsoft and Google have tried to make the health experience for consumers easier, and many others have helped digitize the back end, but it’s still a mess. The pandemic only showed how bad the health services in the country were.
The Covid-19 era is the first time in many decades that people with money have had to deal with the same poor healthcare services that marginalized groups have had for a long time. Because of problems with Covid testing and vaccine schedule, among other things, a lot of people have learned the hard way how much our broken healthcare system costs.
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So, it’s not surprising that there has been a rise in the use of mental health apps and other telemedicine start-ups. Even though this raises real and important concerns about security and the accuracy of online diagnostics (there isn’t much room for error when it comes to health), the people in charge of our hopelessly complicated and expensive healthcare systems will look for cheaper ways to provide services.
Retail. For years, tech companies have put more and more distance between the goods and the customers, which has put a lot of pressure on physical retail, which includes restaurants and bars. While this was going on, tech companies were building one moat after another to make sure they were strong. They did this by giving better service, making delivery easier, and lowering prices.
Companies like Amazon and, to a lesser extent, other success stories like Uber Eats, Instacart, and DoorDash have been hurt by the pandemic. Over the past year, consumers have learned how to use these different services, and they will continue to use them instead of walking to a store or restaurant. These companies have built brands that people trust because they are so useful.
Again, the data that these big companies have collected over the past year will help them improve their services and target users. This gives them a lot of opportunities to improve all kinds of products.
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If you think Apple and Amazon won’t deliver and give you your next vaccine one day, for example, you need to think again.
Tele-education. The last year has not gone so well for online education. Our mental health has suffered from our reliance on virtual education, and it has shown us that not everyone has the same access to the internet. Most users are still having trouble with it. Everyone I’ve talked to agrees that most students have failed.
As tech people often say, it didn’t scale well in terms of technology, creativity, and, most importantly, getting people excited about learning. I don’t blame teachers for not being able to use technology to change their classes, because most of them did their best.
But at my house, my kids spent way too much time doodling, texting, playing games, and watching videos on their always-entertaining cell phones.
Even though online education has been around for a while, all of this is still true. But most developers have worked on making more education available to more people instead of making new products and services.
After the pandemic is over, I would love to see a lot of money put into making online learning easy to use and fun. It’s definitely not, and the chance is clear.
Innovation. The most important thing that could come out of the pandemic is a lot of new ideas in many different fields. After the pandemic of 1918, there were a lot of aggressive ideas in the 1920s, especially after the TV came out.
I can’t say what will be like that in the 2020s, but if I had to guess, I’d say we’ll make more progress with the messenger RNA technology that was used to make several Covid vaccines. It would be ironic and appropriate, and it would fit with how innovation works: From the ashes of a lot of trouble comes a big find. And, as they say, the rest is history.
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