By Nick Myers
There’s no denying we are living in unprecedented times. The last month is both a testament and an eye-opener to how quickly life and the status quo can be disrupted. The United States left the 2010s and entered the 2020s amidst a decade-long period of exponential economic growth that appeared to be never ending; the national unemployment rate was at a 50-year low; and the country was gearing up for a decisive presidential election.
Enter SARS-COV-2 and COVID-19. A global pandemic emerges.
Flash forward to April 2020. The world is now living in what feels like a dystopian future that only fiction authors such as George Orwell and Stephen King could have imagined. The U.S economic engine has been frozen, jobless claims are skyrocketing, and the Democratic National Committee is postponing the party’s presidential nominating convention until August (if not farther out).
We all were caught off guard by an event most people thought was only reserved for big-budget Hollywood disaster films. Times are tough, and whether we want to believe it or not, we all are in this for the long haul.
However, even as bad as things may seem – hope still manages to shine through. One such glimmer is technology. For years we have been exposed to new pieces of technology and have been adapting to our digital world, but for the first time in the age of technology our creations are being put to the test. Personal computers, the internet, mobile phones, video conferencing, social media, voice assistants, and even artificial intelligence have come to the rescue to keep things moving during a time where we need them most.
Whether you’re an entrepreneur or a professional at a major firm, it is critical that you recognize the effect technology is having on this crisis, and that you begin to question how your organization can remain both intact and be agile enough to serve the needs of your customers in a landscape full of what seems like never- ending uncertainty.
Technology is fighting COVID-19, and even amidst an economic deep freeze technology has allowed us to remain creative and agile to come out the other end of this unscathed and more prepared for the future.
Here are some ways technology is assisting with the SARS-COV-2 and COVID-19 fight.
AI and Predictive Analytics
The New York University (NYU) Grossman School of Medicine recently developed and deployed an Artificial Intelligence model that can accurately predict which new patients who have been infected with COVID-19 will go on to develop serious illness. The AI model uses predictive analytics based on prior patient data to precisely predict which patients with specific biological markers will be more prone to succumb to severe respiratory illness. The new AI tool has discovered that changes in three features – levels of the liver enzyme alanine aminotransferase (ALT), reported myalgia, and hemoglobin levels – were most accurately predictive of severe disease. With this technology the research team has reported being able to predict the risk of Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) with up to 80 percent accuracy.
COVID-19 Voice Detection
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have released an early version of a web application that they claim can determine whether you might have COVID-19 just by analyzing your voice. Using Deep Learning AI models, the researchers were able to use data obtained from thousands of people’s voices to train their system to interpret vocal data and flag specific markers that could be indicative of COVID-19. Institutions like Carnegie Mellon are developing applications such as this to aid medical professionals in the diagnosis of COVID-19 which could speed up the testing process. Currently, anyone can use COVID-19 Voice Detector to analyze their voice for signs of infection. However, Carnegie Mellon has issued a hefty disclaimer that it is a not a diagnostic system that has been approved by the U.S Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), and should not be used to substitute actual medical testing. Another company, Voca.ai, is currently working on developing a similar system and is working collecting voice samples that anyone can contribute to.
Siri & Alexa
In late March, Apple updated their Siri virtual assistant to provide information to people who are concerned that they might have COVID-19. Users can ask questions such as “How do I know if I have coronavirus?” or “Do I have coronavirus?” and it will offer advice based on symptoms. Amazon also released an update for their Alexa virtual assistant that offers much of the same functionality to be a source of information for people who think that they might be infected with the virus.
Countries around the world like China, Japan, Spain and the United Arab Emirates have begun deploying the use of drones to disinfect public areas. In China, drones have also been used to patrol areas and observe crowds more efficiently. People not wearing masks in public can be identified more quickly, and some drones even contain thermal sensors to help officials identify people which high body temperatures in public.
These are just a few examples of how technology is assisting with the fight against COVID-19. Although many of these are either experimental or are only just beginning to be deployed in mass, they demonstrate the unique nature of how the world is leveraging its technological assets to remain a step ahead of the virus.
Here are some ways technology keeps business moving.
During the Spanish Flu Pandemic in 1918, when social distancing measures were enforced across multiple cities in the United States, most businesses had no choice but to shut their doors completely. If there were no people to perform the work the work couldn’t get done.
Things have changed.
With technologies like personal computers, smartphones and the internet, an office space can be anywhere that an employee chooses it to be. With extreme social distancing measures being enforced across the country, companies have no choice but to shift to an entirely distributed workforce. For many organizations this is the first time they are being forced to even consider this model as the uncertainty about when social distancing measures will be relaxed grows.
Zoom, a video conferencing platform that launched an IPO last year, added more users so far in 2020 than in all of 2019. The company added 2.22 million monthly active users so far in 2020 while in 2019 it added 1.99 million over the course of the entire year. In-person teams that would normally collaborate multiple times per week in the same room are now collaborating via platforms like Slack and Microsoft Teams.
Again, if we were in any other time period things would look a lot different. As much of a struggle as it is to witness millions of people lose their jobs in an instant due to social distancing measures, the reality is that millions more who would otherwise be out of work get to keep working because of the ability to telework. There is no mistaking that in 2020 all you need is a laptop, smartphone, and internet connection to be able to work from anywhere in the world. It is a very strong likelihood that beyond the COVID-19 pandemic more and more organizations will begin to convert to a distributed workforce model, saving capital on physical office space expenses, as well as increasing the quality of life for employees which will lead to increased productivity.
Entrepreneurs: Being creative and agile in a crisis
It is already tough being an entrepreneur on a normal day… let alone in the middle of a global pandemic full of uncertainty. However, maintaining your creativity and an ability to be agile in times of crisis is the true test of what it means to be an entrepreneur. Entrepreneur’s feed off risk and uncertainty. Knowing that they can fail (and the risk associated with failing) is what keeps many entrepreneurs addicted to their lifestyle.
While many people will let their amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for the fight or flight response) take over and keep them in a persistent state of fight or flight, it is crucial that you resist falling into this trap, and keep your eye on what makes you and your products or services successful.
The best entrepreneurs will be able to leverage the technology at our disposal to be agile and adjust their businesses to meet the changing needs of their customers and their environment. We can see this taking place before our very eyes with companies such as Ford producing ventilators, local breweries and distilleries producing hand sanitizer, and major fashion brands like Luis Vuitton sourcing masks and producing medical gowns for doctors and nurses.
Regardless of what industry you’re in, now is the time to take a step back and critically think about your new position in the marketplace and what new opportunities have presented themselves. The “same old way of doing things” no longer applies here, and the entrepreneurs that continue to have that mindset moving forward are going to be in for a rude awakening, or worse shuttered doors
A glimpse into the crystal ball: The post-pandemic world
Even though the past month alone felt like a year the truth is that we are far from out of the woods in this pandemic. If the current models and epidemiologist predictions hold true, the world may be in a constant state of on-again-off-again social distancing as outbreaks of SARS-COV-2 and COVID-19 flare up before the arrival of an effective treatment or vaccine. This means that over the next few months the United States and the world is going to increasingly rely on our technologies to help us weather this storm. Many people will die, many people will remain unemployed, and many businesses will undoubtedly shutter their doors.
However, there is a great deal of optimism in all of this. The entrepreneurs and business leaders who can maintain their creativity, leverage technology effectively, and be agile are going to be the one’s out ahead when all is said and done. Technologies such AI, voice assistants, video conferencing, and real-time collaboration platforms that have existed for years will undergo a renaissance that will most likely result in the discovery of new and better technologies that we cannot yet even predict. The business landscape and how we conduct business will forever be changed in the era of distributed workforces and telework on a scale unlike anything we have seen to date.
Crises like the COVID-19 pandemic have a habit of revealing our weaknesses as business leaders, as people, and as a species, but they also reveal our hidden strengths that when unleashed allow us to turn the ideas of our imagination into a reality.
Stay hungry. Stay foolish. Stay healthy.
Myers is the founder and CEO of RedFox AI, a former TED speaker and a member of the Tech Council Innovation Network. He spoke at a recent TCIN meeting in Wauwatosa.