The Advantage of Covid-19

Covid-19 has been wreaking havoc across the globe. But this was also expected given the fact that we have not been the best of tenants for Mother Earth.

All the doom and gloom aside, Covid-19 and the mass lockdowns are teaching us a very important lesson about the future of automation and technology.

In a single line:

A secure future requires smart people working on smart devices using smart infrastructure!

Figure 1: Relation between Smart People, Things and Infrastructure.

Figure 1 shows the interactions between Smart People, Things and Infrastructure.

The Covid-19 crisis, which has brought life to a standstill, has exposed the weakness of our automation maturity. Services from haircutting to garbage collection have been trimmed back, mostly as a proactive step. Whatever automation we do have, has helped tremendously (e.g. online grocery shopping) even as people’s behaviour changed overnight as panic set in.

So what is the panic about? What are the basics that we need? The panic is about running out of resources like food due to a collapse of supply chains which have been optimised to reduce warehousing costs.

Supply chains (Logistics) are heavily dependent on people. From farmers growing crops, workers building stuff to drivers transporting the product to the shops (or directly to your home).

This is not the only critical system to break down if large number of people fall ill at the same time.

Healthcare is another area that has been impacted because of the lockdown. Care has to maintained to protect vulnerable people which means minimising contact. This increases the vulnerability due to isolation.

Education has also been impacted with schools closed and exams postponed or cancelled. This might not seem like a big problem but consider the impact in future results.

Another area of concern are the utility networks. Can we truly survive with disruptions to our electricity or water networks?

If the automation is improved in the above areas then we would become more resilient (but not immune) to such events in the future which is as difficult to achieve as it sounds!

Bottom-up Automation

Before a drone can be piloted remotely for hundreds of miles or a truck driven under human supervision from a port to a local warehouse we need robust telecom infrastructure to provide reliable, medium-high bandwidth, low-latency, temporary data connections.

This magic network has three basic ingredients:

  1. Programmable network – devices that can be treated like ‘software’ and provide the same agility > significant progress has already been made in this area.
  2. Network slicing – to efficiently provide the right resource to the requesting service > lot of work ongoing in context of 5G networks
  3. Closed-loop, light touch orchestration – to help people look after a complex network and help make changes quickly and safely when required (e.g. providing a reliable mobile data link to a drone carrying a shipment of food from a wholesaler to a shop, for remote piloting use-case) > significant progress has been made and lot of ongoing work

Using such a network we can build other parts of the puzzle such as smart roads, smart rails and then smart cities. All of these help improve automation and support increasingly light touch automation use-cases.

Smart Things

Once we have the Smart Infrastructure we need Smart Things to use them.

For Logistics and maintaining a robust supply chain during a pandemic we need a fleet of autonomous/remotely supervised/remotely piloted vehicles such as heavy-lift drones, self-driving trains/cars/ships/trucks. We also need similar assistance inside warehouses and factories with robots carrying out the operations with human supervision (so called Industry 4.0 / Lights-out factory use-case).

Healthcare – requires logistics as well as the development of autonomous personal health monitoring kits that augment the doctor by allowing them to virtually examine a patient. These kits need to become as common as a thermometer and should fulfil multiple functions.

For scenario related to caring for vulnerable people, semi-autonomous robots are required that can do lot of the work (e.g. serve dinner).

In case of a lockdown, a teacher should be able to create virtual classrooms with similar level of interactivity (e.g. via AR/VR) as in a real classroom.

To maintain water, electricity and other utilities we need sensors that provide a snapshot of the network as well as actuators, remote inspection and repair platforms etc.

For all of this to be done remotely (e.g. in a lockdown scenario) we need a robust telecoms network. Clearly, without a data connection people would no longer be able to deal with the economic, mental, physical and emotional shock caused by a lockdown.

Smart People

So who will be these people who can pilot/supervise a drone, carrying a crate of toilet rolls from a warehouse in Bristol to a shop in Bath from a remote location? Well trained people of course!

This requires two important things:

  1. Second Job: Everyone should be encouraged to take up a second discipline (of their interest) in a semi-professional capacity. This helps increase redundancy in a system. For example, if you are a taxi driver and have an interest in radio – maybe your second job can be of a maintenance technician.
  2. Thinking beyond data-science and AI: Tech is everywhere and AI is not the final word in hi-tech. People should receive everyday technology training and if possible advanced technology training in at least one topic. E.g. everyone should be taught how to operate a computer but they should also be allowed to choose a topic for deeper study, like security, software development, IT administration etc.

Augmentation technologies should be made more accessible, including providing basic-training in Augmented and Virtual Reality systems so that in case of a lockdown, human presence can be projected via a mobile platform such as a drone or integrated platform within say a forklift or a truck.

Adaptation: This is perhaps the most important. This means not leaving anyone behind in the tech race. Ensuring all technologies allow broad access. This will ensure that in times of trouble technology can be accessed not only by those who are most able to deal with the issues but also those who are the most vulnerable.

All of the above require the presence of smart things!

Conclusion

Thus we have four themes of Logistics, Healthcare, Education and Utilities running across three layers: Smart People -> Smart Things -> Smart Infrastructure. That is what Covid-19 has taught us. A very important lesson indeed, so that the next time around (and there WILL be a next time), we are better prepared!