In 1918, a global pandemic influenza killed approximately 50 million people worldwide, about 3% of the entire population.
Despite living through the worst pandemic since The Black Death and enduring the final days of World War I, governments, organizations, and individuals around the globe continued to fight.
Because of these efforts, many medical, technological, and social innovations were created, improving the lives of millions around the world.
Researchers discovered new methods of detection and treatment, improved patient care, and eventually a vaccine through tireless efforts to understand and combat the deadly virus, as engineers developed better protective gear and new tools to assist these efforts.
Authorities implemented early efforts at social distancing as well: from opening windows and adding extra cars to trains, to urging people to avoid gathering in crowds, to encouraging folks to use telephones to keep connected during mandated quarantines.
The pandemic also led the U.S. government to take a number of initiatives, including a national disease reporting system in 1925, deployment of its first national health survey a decade later, and overseeing the first mass use of an influenza vaccine in 1945.
Though the coronavirus hasn’t had the same devastatingly fatal effect in terms of lives, it has been just as impactful worldwide, if not more, changing the way of life for billions.
However, similar to how the challenges of the “Great Recession of 2009” introduced new technologies into the marketplace such as Instagram, Uber, Netflix, Slack, WhatsApp, and Venmo, the COVID-19 pandemic is fueling innovation to meet the unique challenges it has posed.
Some of these rapidly advancing technologies have the potential to have cascading effects in their respective industries and beyond, as concepts such as “social distancing,” “touchless,” and “quarantine” become seared into the public consciousness and lexicon.
AI is being used to combat the coronavirus in numerous ways. From scanning myriad publications worldwide to identify public health information, to building disease prevention maps, to integrating health apps and chatbots to rapidly screen people with COVID-19 symptoms – it has the potential to increase effective detection and treatment methods in ways traditional means cannot.
Not just for sci-fi or your future Amazon deliveries, supply drones have already proven to be life-savers in the wake of natural disasters and on remote battlefields. They will continue to be more and more applicable in pandemic-like scenarios such as delivering medical and other supplies to remote, quarantined, and other hot zone areas.
Employed by basement hobbyists as well as the Department of Defense in the wake of ventilator shortages early in the COVID-19 pandemic, 3-D printing technology has facilitated the creation of new manufacturing pipelines unavailable in the past. The technology is generally accessible and mature enough that critical devices like human ventilators can be produced reliably and at relatively low-cost.
The concept of a touchless touchscreen may have seemed bizarre prior the pandemic, but it has become imperative to reduce our shared physical points of contact – especially as touchscreens have become ubiquitous in society.
“Predictive touch” technology is becoming much more attractive. Airports are pioneering contact-free applications in terminals and automotive manufacturers are experimenting with touchless infotainment screens.
Fingerprinting technology, foundationally linked to physical touch, is moving toward touchless tech as well, as evidenced in National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) recent “Interoperability Assessment 2019: Contactless-to-Contact Fingerprint Capture” report.
Just as the telephone wasn’t brand new during the 1918 influenza, video conferencing has been around for decades, but it has taken on a very new utility during COVID-19. Applications such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, and Blackboard have proved vital to ensuring social distancing protocols and the continuity of operations for governments, businesses, and schools, as well as providing much-needed social interaction.
Occluded Facial Recognition
Seeing people in protective masks in public prior to COVID-19 wasn’t unheard of, but it was uncommon. It is now the norm, and facial recognition companies have been confronted with the need to compensate for partially covered faces.
NIST recently did a study on how masks affect existing facial recognition software and the results were not good as, “even the best of the 89 commercial facial recognition algorithms tested had error rates between 5% and 50% in matching digitally applied face masks with photos of the same person without a mask.”
But this reality has forced companies to double their efforts to improve recognition algorithms as this still burgeoning technology continues to support identity management and critical infrastructure systems, as well as the safety and security of communities.
The pandemic has triggered an unprecedented demand for digital health technology solutions and has expedited the formation of key public-private partnerships between government organizations and top technology and health companies.
The World Health Organization joined forces with some of the world’s leading tech companies to fight the COVID-19 pandemic leading to solutions like social media misinformation tools, messaging service health alert integrations, and optimized COVID-19 visualization resources.
The National Institutes of Health joined forces with leading pharmaceutical companies to accelerate pandemic response and the Department of Health and Human Services partnered with national pharmacy and grocery retail chains to leverage logistical and operational efficiencies to provide America convenient access to COVID-19 testing.
Trial by Fire
The ancient Greek philosopher Plato once said, “Necessity is the mother of invention.”
Despite the hardship we’ve endured and lives we’ve mourned, this COVID-19 moment has presented an opportunity to grow. Not only within the realm of technology – though its aid in combating COVID-19 has been inextricable from our successes – but also as countries, communities, and people.
In recounting how the 1918 Flu Pandemic inspired a search for causes and cures that contributed to medical and technological breakthroughs, some of which we still use today, STEM education specialist Rob Wallace touches upon the bedrock on which innovation shines brightest.
“This story shows many of the hallmarks that distinguish advancements in the history of scientific innovation: collaboration of researchers across institutions and nations, the serendipitous discovery of phenomena and tools that become keys to answering other questions, and the creativity that researchers use in the face of necessity.” –Rob Wallace, National WWII Museum
Perhaps we’ll still be using some of the innovations created during the COVID-19 pandemic a century from now. And perhaps they will save a few more lives as well.