It’s hard to believe that an entity we can’t even see is able to change so many things in our life.
It’s December 2019. You are excited for the new year to come. 2020 is almost here; even saying it, twenty-twenty, is soothing. You’re hopeful about what it’ll bring; your new year’s resolutions are ready. Oh, maybe you’ve heard some news about the suspicious pneumonia cases in China, maybe not. But you wouldn’t have imagined that it would spread to the whole world only in 2–3 months. You wouldn’t have imagined that 2020, the year that you were excited for, will be nothing like the other years you’ve been alive.
The coronavirus has been with us for more than a year now. Although epidemiologists have different predictions about how long SARS-CoV-2 will be lingering around, they agree that the virus is here to stay longer. Their predictions are based on whether the immunity against the virus is permanent, and the immune response is seasonal. A study predicts that the disease outbreaks in winter are likely to happen in the coming years, like the flu outbreaks during winter. Furthermore, social distancing and other measures to prevent outbreaks might be necessary at least until 2022 to keep the virus under control.
Our lifestyle has significantly changed since the beginning of the pandemic. We are still learning to live with it, and it looks like we need to adapt our lives accordingly. Our hygiene habits, social relationships, and work-life are all drastically affected. We realized that we depend more on technology, especially on the days we must stay at home as much as possible. Luckily, technological developments meet the necessities of the pandemic era.
Let’s take a closer look at how technology evolves in different areas during the pandemic era and how it can frame our future.
AI is here to help
It’s now getting harder to imagine that there is a field that artificial intelligence is not of help. AI has great potential to support healthcare, including, but not limited to diagnostics and drug repurposing, and is employed mostly for healthcare during the pandemic.
The easiest and most reliable test, for now, to detect COVID-19 cases, PCR, has rather low sensitivity (70–80%) and can give false-negative results. In some cases, doctors get help from computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) for the diagnosis. An artificial intelligence model can recognize the lungs of people with COVID-19. Indeed, scientists from China succeeded to develop a 3D deep-learning platform diagnosing COVID-19 by analyzing the chest tomography of suspected patients with high accuracy.
Being asymptomatic for COVID-19 can be good for the individuals themselves, but it is a nightmare for society. People without symptoms are less likely to get tested while more likely to transmit the disease. A research team from MIT developed an AI model that distinguishes the asymptomatic cases from their cough. The model was trained with tens of thousands of coughs and spoken words for this aim. The results were striking; it was able to detect 100% of the asymptomatic cases, which are tested positive but having no symptoms. Sounding no different from a normal cough to the human ear, coughs of asymptomatic people could be distinguished by the AI model. The researchers are now busy developing a user-friendly app.
Since the urgency of the pandemic requires an immediate solution, scientists are investigating the potential use of the existing drugs in COVID-19 rather than developing a new one from scratch. Drug repurposing or repositioning is a technique aiming to use existing medicines for emerging and challenging diseases. It considerably reduces the costs and the timeline of scientific studies because of the proven safety of the present drugs.
Drug development is extremely complex considering the multilevel interactions of medicinal products with biological systems, but machine learning-based models are able to untangle this complexity. AI models can build a whole map with the pharmaceuticals, their interactions with proteins, biological pathways, and pathogenic molecules in days that any living organism can’t do in years.
You’ve probably heard the drug ‘remdesivir’ at least once in the last year. Remdesivir is originally prescribed for viral infections such as hepatitis B and herpes. This antiviral medicine was predicted to be effective against SARS-CoV-2 by an AI model as early as February 2020. Later, a clinical trial showed decreased hospital stay in COVID-19 patients given remdesivir, making it the first drug approved by the FDA for its use in COVID-19.
Dexamethasone, an anti-inflammatory drug used for breathing problems, allergy, and bowel disorders, etc., was identified as a promising drug candidate by AI VIVO in April 2020. The prediction engine based on artificial intelligence took only 15 days to analyze over 90,000 compounds and rank them in order of efficacy. The results from a trial showed that dexamethasone is able to decrease the mortality in critically ill COVID-19 patients, and further research continues.
Even though AI-based drug purposing is still being developed, the current studies yield hopeful results. In the future, this will motive researchers to embed AI models in drug development and repositioning efforts for other diseases and cancer.
As we understand from the current situation, AI has a large potential to support the healthcare sector and scientific studies. All the concerns related to privacy, security, and ethics aside, the pandemic will increase the efforts to improve AI-based technologies and build trust in them.
Remote Healthcare Services
The pandemic makes people more hesitant to go to hospitals and healthcare centers. Besides, all the unnecessary operations and appointments are either canceled or postponed due to the excess number of patients requiring hospitalization. This leads some healthcare professionals to offer virtual consultations.
Telehealth or telemedicine is the use of technology to distribute healthcare-related services and information remotely. It includes patient care, diagnosis, consultations, and interventions. It’s an existing service that pandemic accelerated its development. The use of telemedicine increased by 50% even in the first quarter of 2020, compared to the same period in 2019, according to the report by the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC).
Telemedicine benefits healthcare professionals as well as patients. It reduces unnecessary travel and physical contact, limiting the risk of disease spread. Besides, it decreases the use of personal protective equipment, remember, it was a huge crisis at the beginning of the pandemic, especially in the US.
Using telemedicine has a couple of limitations such as diseases requiring detailed examination, patients unable to use smartphones and apps, etc. Nonetheless, technology develops in a way to support telemedicine while wearable devices and smartphone apps are becoming more available and diverse. Therefore, it isn’t difficult to foresee that telemedicine will be used more frequently for chronic care, routine visits, and doctor-to-doctor consultations.
Shopping and Payments
Online shopping skyrockets in the pandemic era. It is such a blessing that online shopping allows us to buy whatever we want from endless options all around the world. With the closure of shops due to lockdowns, we are no longer surprised to see that even the small local grocery store on the corner starts to sell its products online.
A survey examining the influence of the pandemic on online purchasing behaviors revealed a 6–10% increase in online shopping. Based on the survey, 40% of the respondents will keep purchasing online once the pandemic is over. On the other hand, people planning to shop mostly from physical stores are only 16%, indicating that the pandemic will affect our purchasing behavior in the long-term.
Technology offers new solutions to save us time and energy in shopping, making the online shopping experience easier and more satisfactory. Mobile interfaces, secure payment methods, user-friendly websites, and chatbots are a few of the improvements to this end. It looks clear that the pandemic is making the progress of online shopping development faster than the pre-pandemic era.
As shopping habits change, preferred payment methods also diverge. A report, showing that more than one-third of the people have discovered new digital payment methods during the pandemic, tells us how the pandemic changes our payment habits.
At the beginning of the century, cash or checks were the main way of paying while credit cards were mostly used to pay big amounts. Contactless payment, a relatively new technology in our lives for almost 10 years, became popular among consumers who want to limit physical contact due to the pandemic while the use of cash decreased substantially. Mobile/QR payments, digital wallets, and the ‘buy now, pay later’ systems are also on the rise.
People tend to use what is faster, easier, and more secure. The pandemic accelerated the development speed of innovative payment methods by banks and payment firms. The trend to use digital payment methods seems to stick even after the virus has gone.
Robots have already been used in hazardous jobs that human life cannot be risked. Now, all jobs requiring human interaction can be considered hazardous due to the virus. As a result, the coronavirus pandemic accelerates the replacement of humans with robots in many workplaces.
You might have already seen some robots disinfecting areas or taking swabs from people’s throats. They are not even limited to the healthcare sector. Self-check-in kiosks in hotels, automated temperature screening systems in shopping malls, and robots delivering meal orders are just a few examples of how automation and robotic systems can be employed in the pandemic. Using robots looks beneficial for people; it protects humans from doing jobs that might spread the infection.
Nevertheless, there is a dark side of the coin, the fear of losing jobs permanently. Although the companies focus on protecting their employees at the beginning of the pandemic, they might permanently replace the workers in the end. Robots always show optimal performance, work all day if necessary, and don’t take sick leave, after all.
According to a recent report, the pandemic forces the labor market to change faster, and 85 million jobs will be replaced by automation or robots by 2025. No need to be pessimistic here, it doesn’t mean that the robots will steal people’s jobs, leaving them unemployed. Robotic automation was thought to cause many job losses when robots were first introduced to warehouses and factories, but it also ended up creating several job opportunities.
Overall, the pandemic is a good time to show what robots capable of in order to make people’s life easier and safer. It might not be a good time, in the short-term, for the people facing to lose their jobs. However, it will generate work areas where mental labor is on-demand rather than physical labor. Whatever the outcome will be for the human workforce, we’ll see automation and robotics more and more in various fields in the coming years.
Every day we see a new development, a brand-new change in our lives, thanks to the pandemic. Some of the transitions that experts expect to see after years are already happening. The pandemic teaches us a lesson about how dependent we are on science and technology. It’s hard to picture how we could’ve adapted to the pandemic without the current state of technology and science. We are lucky that technology is at a point where we can tailor it depending on the necessities of our era. As the pandemic shapes technology, technology shapes our future.