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Thursday, September 21, 2023

A great technology wave is cresting over America because of the pandemic — and it’s largely a good thing


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The use of artificial intelligence, robots, and remote learning and shopping will make industries more efficient and effective

If history can teach us anything, it’s that pandemics have a long-lasting and severe effect on the economy. But there’s another lesson: Human ingenuity and adaptation march on.

The deadly coronavirus may have shut down a large number of American businesses and forced many people to work from home, but it’s also the driving force behind the acceleration of technological adoption.

New technologies are being rapidly adopted. Even after there’s a vaccine for the coronavirus, those trends will be here to stay, remodeling society for years to come.

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Jobs market
With offices closed around the world, many people are working from home for the first time. For others, remote work has been part of work life for some time.

In all cases, this trend has shown that many businesses can thrive even when employees don’t come into the office every day. The amount of time, energy and money saved on commuting and real estate alone is an incentive enough for many companies to completely rely on a remote workforce.

This change sent ripples of disruption across many industries. The fact that people can now work wherever their laptop is fundamentally changed labor-migration dynamics. There is no need to relocate to city centers when you can work from the comfort of home. Downtown properties are losing tenants, and in some cases their values are plummeting. In suburbs and rural areas, the opposite is happening: Property values are rising as a growing number of people decide to stay and work from home, enjoying peaceful life only small towns can provide.

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None of this would be possible without the help of video conferencing. Video-conferencing software has been around for a long time, but never has its use surged as high as in the Covid era. Teleconferencing app Zoom ZM is a case in point, one which I covered in detail in an earlier article. Suffice to say that for the company, the arrival of the pandemic was nothing short of lucrative.

The number of Zoom meetings jumped from a pre-Covid 10 million daily-meeting participants in 2019 to a whopping 300 million in April 2020. There is a huge potential in apps facilitating remote communication, and many competitors, such as Facebook FB and Microsoft MSFT , are already vying for a bigger piece of the video-conferencing cake.

Workers aren’t the only ones profiting from remote practices. Since location no longer plays a role in choosing candidates for a position, a lot of companies have tapped into the global online labor market. Now more than ever, opportunities have arisen for skilled workers who otherwise wouldn’t even dream of landing a job in a company thousands of miles away.

Obvious winners of this trend are companies mediating freelancer services, such as Upwork UPWK and Fiverr FVRR . As time passes, their value will only surge as freelancing becomes the new norm for U.S. and global markets. According to some projections, the majority of the U.S. workforce will consist of freelancers by 2027.

Education overhaul
In mid-April, almost 1.6 billion students were affected by the coronavirus epidemic due to school closures in 190 countries. The necessity of being proficient in the language spoken by international employers, as well as having the skills to stand out in a huge global market, is pushing demand for ed-tech businesses sky high.

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From a $107 billion market in 2015, the ed-tech industry is expected to triple to $350 billion by 2025 as more people look for learning resources online. Analysts predict the surge is largely caused by Asia’s growing youth population.

BYJU’S, based in Bangalore, India, is the world’s most valuable ed-tech platform. Its userbase has grown by 7.5 million after it started offering free access to content. In April alone, gross revenue reached $46 million.

Another ed-tech platform whose userbase has increased to unprecedented levels is Duolingo. According to Business Insider, the number of new signups worldwide and in the U.S. grew by 108% and 148%, respectively, in March 2020. There’s now talk of an IPO.

Remade retail
A Nielsen investigation uncovered six key consumer thresholds that tie directly to concerns about the Covid-19 outbreak and shape the way retailers are adapting to the new environment. Consumers want to shop online, prefer home delivery, and are looking for seamless online experiences. Retailers have recognized these needs and responded by completely digitizing the shopping experience.

The result? As of April 21, U.S. and Canadian e-commerce orders have grown by 129% year-over-year, while global online retail orders have achieved an impressive 146% growth.

Even the concept of online shopping is being revamped.

As the Covid-19 pandemic has kept consumers at home, brands and retailers like Walmart WMT , L’Oréal LRLCY , Kendra Scott, and Suitsupply have introduced virtual tools to engage with shoppers.

According to a Coresight Research report and pre-Covid-19 projections from Statista, the reality-technology market, which includes augmented reality and virtual reality, is forecast to reach $18.8 billion in 2020.

Autonomous vehicles
Another industry is getting a boost from the Covid-19: Autonomous vehicles. In China, the pandemic has created opportunities for the autonomous-driving industry and intelligent solutions. Baidu BIDU has released 104 driverless vehicles, which will help with disinfecting, logistics, cleaning and transportation in 17 Chinese cities.

Apollo, Baidu’s autonomous-vehicle platform, has partnered with Neolix, a local self-driving startup to deploy unmanned vehicles that disinfect all roads in commercial areas in Shanghai.

Additionally, vehicles can serve as a nighttime security robots and sound the alarm if they detect behavior that disregards coronavirus-prevention guidelines, such as not wearing masks or holding mass gatherings.

Apollo has also partnered with another company, iDriverPlus, to provide autonomous vehicles for 16 hospitals for nationwide Covid-19 treatments. Each hospital is allocated one or two disinfectant and delivery vehicles — the aim is to minimize person-to-person transmission and alleviate the shortage of medical staff.

Baidu is accelerating plans to incorporate its technology into people’s everyday lives. In April 2020, the company started its Baidu Apollo Robotaxi service, offering free rides to denizens of Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province. The service covers industrial, residential and commercial districts across a 130-square-kilometer area.

In the U.S., Waymo, Alphabet’s GOOG GOOGL self-driving technology company that has been working on autonomous taxis, has also been developing self-driving trucks and delivery vehicles. The company has recently raised $750 million from investors and signed deals with UPS UPS and Walmart.

But Waymo is not the only one raising new financing.

Let’s not forget Michigan-based autonomous delivery startup Refraction AI, sidewalk robot maker Kiwibot in California, self-driving technology company Optimus Ride in Boston and Ireland’s Manna Drone.

AI development goes into overdrive
As firms continue to cut overhead and bolster efficiency in an increasingly competitive market, remote work and workflow automation are becoming the norm. As you probably know, behind every good automation algorithm is artificial intelligence (AI). In the Coronavirus-affected world, artificial intelligence plays a greater role than ever before, especially in the medical-technology industry. Complex algorithms are used for everything from tracking the infection and predicting infection patterns to accelerating research that could lead to world’s first novel Coronavirus vaccine.

According to Wired, a 2019 study covering 19 countries’ artificial intelligence health-care markets “estimated a 41.7% compound annual growth rate, from $1.3 billion in 2018 to $13 billion in 2025, in six major growth areas: hospital workflow, wearables, medical imaging and diagnosis, therapy planning, virtual assistants, and, lastly but most significantly, drug discovery. Covid-19 will accelerate those trends rapidly.”

Did you know that BlueDot, the artificial-intelligence platform created by Toronto-based BlueDot Inc., actually warned its creators of an anomaly in the Chinese city of Wuhan nine days before the World Health Organization released its now-famous statement? AI registered a cluster of unusual pneumonia cases in Wuhan, which later became known as the epicenter of the Coronavirus outbreak.

In China, Alibaba BABA announced its AI algorithm that can allegedly diagnose suspected cases within 20 seconds (almost 45 times faster than human detection) with 96% accuracy. The AI then alerts autonomous vehicles, which are sent to the location, saving people unnecessary exposure.

Nvidia NVDA has designed a new line of AI-driven supercomputing systems, the DGX A100, which will help government researchers at Argonne National Lab screen potential Coronavirus therapeutics faster, up to 1 billion drugs in under 24 hours. Without the added computing power, they would need close to a year to screen the same number of therapeutics.

Nvidia also announced other new services it plans to offer to hospitals across the country. Using its line of specialized GPUs, it has managed to reduce the time needed to analyze an entire human genome from around 30 hours to less than 20 minutes. The company is also teaming up with more than a dozen industry partners and 50 hospitals around the globe to help better protect frontline medical staff through the use of applications and services developed via Nvidia Clara Guardian Application Framework.

Artificial intelligence cannot do much if it is not fed torrents of actionable data. Companies making this data available will be the ones reaping the benefits alongside Nvidia and its ilk.

Kaggle, a machine-learning and data-science platform, is one such company. Its mission is to host the Covid-19 Open Research Dataset, or CORD-19, which compiles relevant data and adds new research into one centralized hub. The new data set is machine readable for AI learning purposes.

As of publication, more than 128,000 scholarly articles have been published on Covid-19, the coronavirus, SARS, MERS and other relevant terms. The Covid-19 research challenge, which started March 16 and is also hosted on Kaggle, aims to provide a broad range of insights into the pandemic — its natural history, transmission data and diagnostic criteria for the virus, and lessons from previous epidemiological studies — to help global health organizations stay informed and make data-driven decisions.

AI’s potential goes beyond just treatment and diagnosis — it can speed up paying insurance bills, getting appointments and other processes. But most important, AI is now being provided more data than ever. This aggregated data will be used for the creation of health profiles and benchmarks for individuals and entire populations; any anomalies in these profiles will provide crucial warnings, potentially leading to similar outbreaks in the future.

Health care’s transformation
Keeping nurses and doctors safe is of vital importance during a pandemic to prevent the health-care system from collapsing due to increased number of patients and staff shortages.

The International Council of Nurses estimated that until May 2020, at least 90,000 health-care workers were infected, and more than 260 nurses died in the novel Coronavirus pandemic. A shortage of trained medical staff can be as dangerous as putting their lives at risk. This can also have fatal consequences for those seeking urgent medical aid.

The solution? Telehealth, the distribution of health-related services and information via electronic information and telecommunication technologies. It helps mitigate these risks for patients and doctors alike because it provides quick turnaround and a risk-free environment for patient examination. It also enables clinicians to consult with other specialists via conference calls while talking to patients.

Tele-health became especially sought-after during the Covid pandemic; one tele-medicine company, Teladoc TDOC , has doubled its appointments to 20,000 a day since early March.

Hospital systems are also reporting massive spikes in virtual visits. Ochsner Health in Louisiana, a coronavirus hotbed, said it’s conducted more than 120,000 virtual consultations by June 2020, compared with 3,300 in all of 2019.

Another good example is digital-health-management company Livongo LVGO , a company so hot, its stock value has more than tripled since February. One Medical ONEM also does business in that area, offering in-person and virtual services.

Virtual mental health is an emerging niche. Mindstrong, a mental-health-care company, announced in May a successful round of financing, raising $100 million. LifeStance, another mental-health-services provider, pulled in $1.2 billion in April.

Sometimes teleconferencing isn’t enough. That’s where robot-assisted surgery can provide not only enough distance between a patient and a surgeon, but also superior results and a faster recovery compared with traditional surgery.

Even before the pandemic, many analysts expected significant annual growth of surgical robots’ market in the 2019-to-2025 period. Growth is now expected to surpass $16 billion by 2025.

Alphabet’s subsidiary Google, Johnson & Johnson JNJ , Stryker SYK and Medtronic MDT have invested billions of dollars into a new wave of surgical robots.

As the world adapts to a new post-pandemic normal, there is likely to be an increase in demand for these procedures and companies manufacturing surgical robots. In times when medical staff’s lives are worth their weight in gold, remote surgical procedures are a godsend.

The same can be said for robots that clean hospitals and disinfect rooms for patients.

San Antonio, Texas-based Xenex has developed a full-spectrum UV “germ-zapping” robot to help battle hospital-acquired infections (HAIs), and is now in a position to potentially help slow the spread of the coronavirus within medical facilities. Ultimately, the company wants to establish a new standard method for disinfection in health-care facilities worldwide.

The number of orders for Xenex’s $125,000 disinfecting robot keeps growing, especially in Asia and Italy. Revenue was up about 20% in 2019, but company CEO Morris Miller projects growth will be anywhere from 400% to 600% in 2020.

These are just some of the examples of how Covid-19 has not only plunged the world into chaos, but also fundamentally transformed it. Technologies I’ve outlined in this article aren’t exactly new — in fact, most have been in development. Some have been struggling, and some have seen slow but consistent growth until the coronavirus epidemic.

The deadly virus caused a paradigm shift in human behavior that has highlighted the necessity, importance and value of these technologies in a modern society that is now — more than ever — turning from analog into digital.

Written by Jurica Dujmovic, a MarketWatch columnist.

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