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A brighter tomorrow?

While the COVID-19 pandemic has yet to fully play-out, it’s had a profound impact on how we work, play and rest. New Electronics takes a look at the technologies that could drive change going forward.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced businesses to turn to technology to enable production to continue and for dispersed teams to work from home and communicate, via platforms like Zoom or Teams.

According to Mike Britchfield, VP Sales, EMEA, Analog Devices, as the crisis has impacted the private sector as a whole, “digitalisation or digital transformation” is now front and centre.

The business opportunities that the pandemic has created are expected to have a significant impact on how people work, rest and play.

“Communications has seen increased demand, even more so as it appears that the trend towards working from home is going to require a more robust and effective communications infrastructure,” said Britchfield. “Wireless networks and overall connectivity are two areas where remote working is going to have a significant impact both now and in the not-so-distant future.”

“The daily commute is something that nobody really enjoys and there will be more companies who see the value in either integrating or expanding an existing remote workforce,” Britchfield continued. “Teleworking will likely increase as COVID-19 has made this option an essential tool in terms of how certain teams communicate and collaborate with each other. “By the same chalk, Industry 4.0 has been part of the business optimisation conversation for almost a decade now, but the adoption of next-gen technology has remained – on some levels – a work-in-progress.”

According to Britchfield, COVID-19 has accelerated the urgency around that conversation and shown that a digital mindset is not only possible but necessary to compete and survive in this ‘brave new world’.

“Next-gen technology has already been integrated into the manufacturing sector, what matters, is how companies take advantage of the resources that are available to them. With that in mind, the term “digital transformation” might also rid itself of buzzword status and evolve to what can be considered the norm across the board.”

Speaking at COGX 2020 earlier this month, Bernard Marr, a futurist and strategic adviser, talked about the key technologies that he saw as helping to transform and deliver the post COVID-19 world.

He focused on five: artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, the ‘As-a- Service/Cloud’ revolution, 5G and extended reality, including virtual, augmented and mixed realities.

Technology trends

In truth, none of these are ‘new’ technologies, but Marr made the point, backed up by Britchfield, that they had all been given a significant boost by the crisis.

“These technology trends were all identified before the crisis hit, but what we’ve seen as a result of the crisis are numerous examples, around the world, where their adoption is being taken up more rapidly and they are being deployed more quickly, than had been the case,” Marr suggested.

“The first serious trend is artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. It will have a critical role for businesses going forward, especially for those looking to engage with their customers, but also in streamlining processes. It has assumed greater importance in helping companies to get back to performing well; it will help them to make better sense of data, to analyse it and extract useful information.

“Companies that use data and AI will have better insights and make better decisions. They will be able to spot trends and understand where and when customer demand is shifting.

“AI is, in my opinion, the most powerful technology we have ever had.”

Marr points to how chat bots have been used, during the crisis, to communicate with people, in particular in the retail space.

“According to research there has been a 40 per cent increase in wine consumption in the UK during the lockdown. Lidl has used a Facebook messaging service to discuss wine choices with customers, while Domino Pizzas has been using machine vision technology to scan and monitor the quality of its pizzas.”

The second technology trend, identified by Marr, looks at robotics, drones and autonomous vehicles.

Britchfield agrees that we will see more automation, especially in the manufacturing sector, and much greater integration.

“That’s a direct result of the social distancing that many of us have become more used to in recent months. Moving forward we will see greater collaboration between human workers and machines – and it’s important that organisations do not lose sight of the importance of the human element here – as the way these technologies can be most impactful is cooperating with workers.”

Marr makes the point that post COVID-19 business leaders will need to make their companies more resilient and using robotics and automation, to take people out of the critical parts of the supply chain, will make those chains more secure.

There have been numerous examples of robotics being deployed effectively, during the pandemic, according to Marr.

“Drones have been used to enforce social distancing and there has been a lot of attention when it comes to automating the supply chain. In Milton Keynes, where I live, a self-driving delivery robot has been making regular food deliveries to customers. More autonomous vehicles are being used for logistics, while in Japan robots – within healthcare – have been deployed to engage with patients and administer temperature monitoring.”

According to Marr, whatever the technology, access to it has become far easier.

“This then leads to my third key technology trend - ‘As-a-Service’ delivery,” Marr says. “As-a-Service, when combined with cloud computing, has shown its worth during the crisis. It’s now possible to have AI or robotics as a service, where these processes are hosted by someone else. Look at video calls. As the crisis unfolded Zoom needed to scale its operations. Driven by cloud on demand services it was able to purchase more capacity to scale the business up.”

This type of service model can be extended to all types of processes – leasing robots, renting out AI services etc.

“This will enable companies to be more flexible scaling their vision up, and down, depending on what they are looking to achieve.”

Marr suggests that this trend will only increase going forward. His final two trends are 5G and extended reality.

“We’ve seen more home and mobile working during the crisis, and this is a trend that is likely to stick. For example, both Twitter and Facebook have told their staff that they can work from home indefinitely, and 5G will make a big difference here, delivering super-fast, stable networks.”

Working from home, proves that there is a defined need for a faster communications structure, adds Britchfield.

“The demand for reliable and efficient communications tools will be directly aligned with how quickly wireless infrastructure is implemented in various regions, and connectivity will be a key component on how we adapt to the post-COVID world that we will find ourselves in.

“Video conferencing is already a baked-in part of the global business sector, but it needs to tick all the boxes to be truly effective – if only 50 per cent of your workforce has access to modern networks, then that becomes a problem and a potential roadblock in terms of how you communicate with colleagues, suppliers and, importantly, customers.

“On the plus side, the tools that we need to succeed are already here.”

Britchfield makes the point that when it comes to buildings, not everyone will be able to work remotely, and there will be a need to deploy advanced sensing and monitoring devices that can track movement and body temperature.

“Numerous physical locations will need imaged-based occupancy detection and people-counting solutions to maintain a sense of well-being and, importantly, limit the fears that the pandemic has created,” he suggests.

“A we see more on demand services, fuelled by 5G, we’ll see more companies entering this space, such as video gaming which will enable users to simply use their tablet or mobile device to enter games,” suggests Marr. “It will also open up the opportunity to use more extended reality, for example by retailers and educators.”

Whatever the future holds, and at this stage of the crisis no one truly knows where we will be in a few months, let alone years, one thing is true. The technology revolution is likely only to accelerate in this new post-pandemic world.

Author
Neil Tyler

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