Home / Blog / Lights and Shadows of Covid-19 on Digital Transformation – VIII

Lights and Shadows of Covid-19 on Digital Transformation – VIII

Violet is a robot designed to help in sanitation of hospital rooms and can be used in closed spaces like stores and in offices. Using UV light it can kill the coronavirus and has a smart detection system to switch off the UV light if a human shows up. Image credit: Akara Robotics

I was asked a few questions related to the expected UK Government directives that will be issued on May 10th to shift the country into phase 2, controlled return to business and societal interactions.
I decided to share the answers I gave as far as they relate to the Digital Transformation. As usual, your comments are welcome.

  1. How do you think the new office COVID-19 guidance will impact companies from a technology standpoint?

Most of the guidelines are aiming at in-office separation, social distancing. Some of the activities involved will be difficult to execute in this framework and although in the short term it may be difficult/impossible to have compliance in the medium term this will stimulate a rethinking of interactions, i.e. process re-engineering and automation. Both of them lead to increased use of technology. A few companies are developing affordable robots targeting SME both to ensure sanitation and for taking over menial tasks thus reducing interaction among workers.

An example is Akara Robotics. They developed Violet, see the photo, targeting the sanitation of hospital rooms but it can be used in a closed environment. It kills germs using UV light that is also dangerous to humans. Hence the robot uses sensors to detect the presence of humans in which case it switches off the UV light. Another example is a robot (prototype) using chemicals to disinfect closed spaces by Rubedo Systemos a Lithuanian company designed for large spaces like train stations, department stores…

In general we are seeing a drive towards automation. The current crises can serve both as a catalyst for change and an accelerator of a change that is already ongoing. This is the case of the extension of automation to small medium enterprise and to the retail sector. Although liquidity is an issue, particularly for small business, government support can step in to foster innovation and restarting activities. Robotics is now a mature technology in terms of performance and flexibility and the evolution is now towards the extension of affordability to smaller businesses. In turns this is going to scale up the market making robots even more affordable. As it has been affirmed by Arun Sundararajan, a NYU Stern School of Business professor researching how digital technologies transform society, what is now being pushed into the business processes as a way to cope for the emergence will actually consolidate into a new tech paradigm. In other words: don’t think that once the epidemic is over we will go back to the old times.

The latest Flexera “State of Cloud report” indicates a significant growth in Cloud usage. The graphic results from an April 2020 survey and shows the majority of respondents foresee an increase in cloud usage as consequence of Covid-19 that will continue even after the epidemic will be over, both for enterprise and small businesses. Image credit: Flexera

In the guidelines expected by the UK Government there is a call for a continuation of smart/remote/tele working whenever this is possible. This is clearly going to benefit those companies providing the supporting technologies and it is likely to foster their evolution. Besides, it is not an isolated call. Most Countries are actively pressing on this with several providing incentive and changes in the labour regulations to make teleworking easier. Unions have become fully involved and have been quick in pointing out dangers like Big-Brother control of workers (becoming so much easier since everything is digitalised, hence controllable…) and the work exceeding the usual working hours. Take a look at the interesting article published by Bloomberg pointing out the dark sides of teleworking, when the boundaries separating work from home life fade away.

Use of remote cooperative tools and of cloud infrastructures (see graphic) is expected to stay after the epidemic is over. It was an ongoing process that is now accelerated and that is changing the work dynamics.

Robots are also more likely to be adopted in retail, both big department stores and small retail points. Self serve dispensers are not new but are likely to become more flexible and common. Robots to pick up the wares and deliver them to a customer that asked for them via an app are also on the uprise (they are common in several countries in the Far East already) as well as robots performing inventory functions.

A further push to adopt technology in Phase 2 (which is expected to last for several months, possibly over a year) is the need to provide a perception of safety in the interaction with the customers. This will become a competitive advantage in areas like retail, hotels, entertainment… Again, the use of robot, like shop assistant, hotel concierge … may become a differentiator and push adoption. An article published on May 6 by the University of Surrey goes into interesting details on possible use of service robots in the hospitality industry to redefine leadership in that sector. A few hotels are using robots to care for people in quarantine, like in a Tokyo hotel completely dedicated to “coronavirus” guests.
Adoption of technology to intercept contagious employees and customers will also be fostered (infrared sensors, image recognition,…). However, this latter is fraught, particularly in Western culture, with privacy concerns so it will have to be deployed in a regulated and transparent framework (there is already one in place to regulate the use of safety/security cameras).


About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.