The course of technology-driven change has been diverted this year due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. While the biggest drivers of change are still artificial intelligence (AI), the internet of things (IoT), and other fourth industrial revolution fields, their impact was felt in different ways than we may have anticipated at the start of the year.
Nowhere is this more true than in healthcare. The focus of advanced research across medicine, vaccines, social care, and environmental health has shifted to tackling the ongoing crisis. And every key trend, from biotechnology and smart medicine to virtual and augmented reality, smart cities, digital twinning, and robotics, have had their part to play.
Here are my top five predictions for how this will continue to play out throughout 2021. As new vaccines and treatments provide a glimmer of hope that normality of some sort may resume, breakthroughs enabled by the accelerated pace of innovation we’ve seen this year will better equip us to face new challenges.
In 2020, every company has had to become a tech company as data and computing have become essential to everything we do. In 2021, every company will learn to become a healthcare company, too, as safeguarding employees and customers becomes a core requirement of doing business.
This will include enhanced biosecurity measures from sanitization stations to on-premises screening technology and quarantine measures at locations where staff are required on-site and can't work from home. Tech-driven innovation around this will bring us improved safety measures and early-warning systems to reduce the likelihood of contagious illnesses being passed around.
For some companies, it will still be safer for staff to remain remote going into 2021 and possibly throughout the year. Here, there will be other challenges, such as a need to support the mental health of workers as they juggle home and work responsibilities. Without daily face-to-face contact, it will be more difficult for managers to assess whether their teams are overworked or taking the right precautions to safeguard their health. Once again, technology will play its part in mitigating these dangers, from health apps that monitor our activity and remind us to take breaks and exercise, meditation and mindfulness apps, and remote therapeutic services.
If it's possible to receive the same level of care at home as you would from a visit to a doctor's surgery or outpatient clinic, then surely it makes sense to do so? Particularly for minor and routine appointments, the number of virtual visits have skyrocketed during the pandemic and is predicted by Forrester analysts to hit one billion by the end of 2020. It’s also thought that during 2021 one third of virtual care appointments will be related to mental health issues.
As well as reducing the risk of spreading contagion, remote medicine allows medical professionals to squeeze more patient consultations into their busy schedules. This is a particularly vital consideration in highly populated countries such as China and India, where doctors are in short supply.
Another facet of this trend will be the ongoing development of robotic and autonomous healthcare assistants capable of working in hospitals or right in people's homes. These will reduce the likelihood of infection (a big problem in hospitals even before Covid). These also have mental health implications - companion robots are being introduced into care homes in the UK; they were found to be successful at reducing symptoms of loneliness and social isolation.
Gene editing enables us to influence specific traits that are inherited by new living cells, when new proteins are created by the division of existing cells. These traits, known as phenotypes, govern the cell’s longevity, its ability to survive against injury or illness, and many other factors. By manipulating these phenotypes through techniques such as CRISPR-Cas9, scientists have already made many advances in treatments of killer diseases, including Duchenne muscular Dystrophy, heart disease, and cancer.
Due to breakthroughs in this field, we're likely to see accelerated development of forms of treatment known as "precision medicine," where drugs can be customized to match the genetic profile of individual patients, making them more effective, as well as less likely to cause unwanted side-effects.
The technology has also been used to create a “lab on a chip," designed for fast detection of coronavirus infection. A handheld device capable of detecting if people are infected, without having to rely on inaccurate indicators such as coughing or a temperature, could be hugely beneficial in returning a level of normality to our lives.
And looking beyond medical use cases, methods demonstrated by on UK startup, Tropic Biosciences, have been used to create caffeine-free coffee beans, reducing the cost and resources spent decaffeinating regular beans. They have also created disease-resistant bananas, which could transform an industry that currently spends a quarter of its production costs fighting disease.
The growth in the amount of data collected on our health, from our interaction with health services as well as our own devices and online activities, means providers have an increasingly accurate picture of where and when intervention may be needed.
The coronavirus pandemic has shown us that there is a willingness to share our personal data when the benefits to our health are clearly communicated. This has been proven by track-and-trace systems that have reliably kept infection levels in check in some regions (though less so in others).
This will be particularly important from a financial point of view. The coronavirus pandemic has been costly for the healthcare industry, with revenues falling by 50% in the US due to patients avoiding hospitals and surgeries. This will lead to an increased reliance on AI-driven prediction tools to forecast where resources can be used most efficiently. Insurance providers will also step up their use of advanced predictive technology to better understand risk and more accurately set premiums.
"Smart cities" is a term used to describe the concept of building digital connectivity and automated data-driven decisioning into the fabric of urban life, including planning public transport networks, refuse collection, energy distribution, and environmental health initiatives. AI and IoT are fundamental to many initiatives in this space.
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, the focus of smart city innovation has switched towards planning and managing the way growing numbers of people will live in ever-closer proximity to each other. This is a particular challenge in developing countries where urban populations continue to grow – the UN predicts 68% of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050.
Just as every company will have a focus on healthcare going into 2021 (see my first prediction in this post), so to will every city planner and municipal authority. A keyword is “resilience”, with increasing resources dedicated to developing technology to help avoid the catastrophic impact on lives and economies of pandemics and outbreaks. Environmental health is a major focus, too, with tech-driven initiatives aimed at reducing air pollution and building resilience to climate-driven change such as temperature and sea-level rises, likely to take center-stage as we move into the ‘20s.