COVID-19 and the Future of Technology

In February 2021, the Pew Research Centre, a nonpartisan American think tank based in Washington, D.C., and researchers from Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Centre in North Carolina, released the results of opinions of experts in technology, communications and social change in a report entitled ‘Experts Say the “New Normal” in 2025 Will Be Far More Tech-Driven, Presenting More Big Challenges’.

The respondents were unanimous in their belief that humankind’s relationship with technology will deepen. However, this is not necessarily good news. In some developed countries, argued some respondents, big industry will push ahead with the manufacture of artificial intelligences (AI) ‘in ways that seem likely to further erode the privacy and autonomy of their users’.

The digital divide will continue to widen because more people around the world in poorer societies will have diminishing access to ‘smart’ technologies.

The researchers from Pew and Elon University found that people’s greatest fear is the rapid and advancement of ‘the spread of misinformation as authoritarians and polarised populations wage warring information campaigns with their foes’.

Respondents did suggest some positives for the future. ‘AI [could] allow people to live smarter, safer and more productive lives, enabled in many cases by “smart systems” in such key areas as health care, education and community living,’ ‘flexible-workplace arrangements [could] become permanent’, and technology ‘[could be at the heart of] new reforms aimed at racial justice and social equity’.

The 915 respondents each recognised the epic scale of the COVID-19 pandemic. ‘They used words like “inflection point,” “punctuated equilibrium,” “unthinkable scale,” “exponential process,” “massive disruption” and “unprecedented challenge”’, said the report authors.

Respondents suggested that the so-called ‘internet of things’ will develop exponentially,

[W]ith sensors and devices that allow for new kinds of patient health monitoring; smart millimetre wave machines to diagnose people with disease symptoms; advances in synthetic biology and computational virology that improve drug testing and targeted disease therapies; diagnostic screenings that cover a person’s diet, genes and microbiome; handheld detection devices that citizen swarms use to address environmental problems; and a new class of tele-care workers.

Additionally, the experts forecast

  • the creation of 3D social media systems that allow for richer human interaction (sometimes via hologram avatars);
  • mediated digital agents (interdigital agents) gradually taking over significantly more repetitive or time-consuming tasks;
  • a ‘flying Internet of Things’ as drones become more prolific in surveillance, exploration and delivery tasks;
  • ubiquitous augmented reality;
  • an expanded gig economy built around work-from-home free agents;
  • urban farming that reaches industrial scale; advances in trusted cryptocurrency that enable greater numbers of peer-to-peer collaborations;
  • locally based, on-demand manufacturing; ‘local in spirit and local in practice’ supply chains;
  • a robust marketplace of education choices that allow students to create personalised schooling menus;
  • ‘tele-justice’ advances that allow courts to handle large numbers of cases remotely;
  • ‘truth valuation’ protocols that diminish the appeal of disinformation; and
  • small, safer nuclear reactors for energy production.

At the more everyday level, the 915 experts also think there will be better speech recognition, facial recognition (including sentiment discernment from facial expressions), real-time language translation, captioning and autocorrect capacity, sensory suits, robust video search, body motion sensors, 3D glasses, multimedia databases and broader network bandwidth that will enable full 3D virtual experiences and developments in AI allowing it to serve more of people’s needs.