It looked like Covid might put innovation in the deep freeze, as markets tumbled and innovators went into lockdown with the rest of us. Then it turned out that technology would prove our salvation, propping up home life with food and parcels and online entertainment, office life with remote working software, and healthcare systems with speedily developed vaccines. The consequences have been significant: city dwellers found they could move out to cheaper, greener homes and work from there; meanwhile, others found their jobs at risk from accelerating automation. When it comes to technology, will history come to look back on 2020 as a turning point?
- Hospitals create ‘virtual wards’ by using Zoom consultations and wearable devices to monitor patients at home.
- A new form of Artificial Intelligence showed it could mimic natural, human writing to startling effect.
- A new way of making vaccines helped protect against Covid, and may protect against cancer in future.
- From Zoom to Teams, videoconferencing boomed, creating a new way of working.
- Logistics companies with a deep investment in automation like Amazon and Ocado boomed and became a model for others.
Healthcare goes virtual as doctors create ‘virtual wards’
From GP surgeries to major hospitals, healthcare systems in the UK and beyond have strained during the pandemic to see non-urgent patients remotely. The NHS has turned to startups like Huma, which allows doctors to monitor patients at home rather than in wards, using wearable gadgets that can track everything from heart rate to oxygen levels. Meanwhile, Health Secretary Matt Hancock, himself a user of remote GP service Babylon Health, says that GPs are now seeing almost three-quarters of patients remotely, compared to just a quarter a year ago. He wants that to continue after the pandemic. The benefit of remote medicine today is twofold, limiting the chance of Covid infection and helping ensure capacity for any influx of patients suffering the effects of the virus. Tomorrow it might help create a more efficient NHS.
Calling all robot authors… computers can write now too
Beyond healthtech, an advance in artificial intelligence is proving the most dramatic tech leap of this year. GPT-3, developed by the San Francisco research company OpenAI, stands for generative pre-trained transformer 3. It was trained on billions of words, and as a result can now write phrases, scripts, code, sentences, stories, speeches, emails, novels – you name it – that appear natural and human. This month, one industry outlet even set it the task of writing the Queen’s Christmas Speech. “It’s been a tricky few months…” the computer monarch began. GPT-3 shows just how quickly artificial intelligence can prosper, even in “creative” fields that we may think of as inherently human, which is probably why it has been labelled both scary and sensational.
Covid vaccines offer hope for many other diseases too
The rapid production of vaccines to protect against Covid has been the medical triumph of this pandemic year. Until now it has taken a minimum of four years to develop a new vaccine. But the good news shouldn’t stop there. The mRNA technique behind the Pfizer vaccine (but not AstraZeneca, which uses more traditional methods), sends genetic instructions to the body to help it fight back against the virus. Yet it is a hugely flexible technique, as those instructions can be easily changed. That should help the rapid development of vaccine updates against new Covid variants, but in future could also be deployed against other diseases too, from cancer to HIV and sickle cell.
Now the age of videoconferencing is here, will it ever end?
It has been a year of astonishing growth for video conferencing platforms. Zoom, which has become synonymous with the trend, shows just astonishing. On January 1 this year its share price was $76. Exactly nine months later, it stood at $470. As the workers of the world united in turning to video platforms, there were even early fears that broadband networks could buckle. They didn’t. But the trend is having a significant impact. Earlier this month Bill Gates suggested half of business travel would never return. Cities are suffering too, as people move out. Consulting firms are estimating that for the first time in almost a quarter of a century, London’s population shrank in 2020, down by 300,000.
Automation has gone mainstream as firms invest in staying safe
Companies like Ocado and Amazon which delivered services to our doors have thrived during the pandemic. The latter’s value is up more than half in the last 12 months, while Ocado more than doubled. That success has been built on resilient logistics, whether it be Ocado’s highly automated warehouses or Amazon multibillion-dollar testing of its own staff. Now other firms want to get in on the act. Ocado’s future lies not just in groceries, but also in selling its logistics platform to others, as it showed a few weeks ago by expanding its partnership with America’s biggest grocer, Kroger. Next year, Kroger and Ocado have just announced that automation will move in-store, to help staff speed up customer shopping. Expect more to follow.