Covid-19 pandemic impact: A tech-tonic shift

April 1, 2021 5:15 AM

The pandemic year has brought to the fore some exponential technological changes that are about to change our lives fundamentally

Consider a few newsy items from the past few months, which have a deeper profound meaning than what we imagine them to be at first sight.Consider a few newsy items from the past few months, which have a deeper profound meaning than what we imagine them to be at first sight.

By Srivatsa Krishna

An unprecedented, unbelievable convergence of technologies is heralding the advent of the ‘exponential era’, where technology will impact every single walk of life, and exponentially, not just geometrically. Not only is the Moore’s Law not showing any signs of ending any time soon, but it is actually expanding to other adjacent technologies as well. Gordon Moore’s 1965 forecast was that the number of components on an integrated circuit would double every year until these reached an astonishing 65,000 by 1975, which he revised as Moore’s Law, to a doubling of transistors on a chip every two years. Couple this with the exponential convergence of technologies such as materials and sensors, artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML), facial recognition, autonomous electric vehicles, robotics and 3D printing, to name just a few, our day-to-day lives are going to change inexorably soon.

Consider a few newsy items from the past few months, which have a deeper profound meaning than what we imagine them to be at first sight.

First, EHang successfully completed its first ever drone taxi trials in China and Korea, two weeks ago, and has received approvals to commence its first commercial service in Guangzhou soon. Flying cars will be a reality in this decade in most countries around the world. The day is not far—perhaps within 2-10 years depending on which country we live in—when like we order an Uber, we can order an aerial rideshare. This would have profound impact not just on travel, but also on parking plazas and property valuations as they get converted into drone ports. Something akin to how when the cellular revolution began, most properties were tapped to install antennas on their rooftop for a commercial consideration.

The precursor to this flying taxi was the first autonomous car developed by General Motors in 1939, and it has taken almost nine decades for it to be ready for primetime. Autonomous vehicles (AVs) are literally round the corner and should be centre-stage before the end of the decade. Tesla has dramatically rewritten the rules of both the automobile and the solar industry as it were, with its bold audacious bets. It is no wonder that in January 2021 Tesla’s valuation was almost equal to that of the entire auto industry, approximately $800 billion! Its self-driving vehicles have proved to drive flawlessly in rain, snow or shine. Driven by algorithms, the more data Tesla vehicles collect, the better autonomous driving will become. The US Tesla fleet has grown from around 150,000 in 2017 to around 750,000-800,000 today, or now with 5x-6x more data. Today, Tesla reports one accident per 3.7 million miles when the autopilot is engaged fully, versus one accident per about 475,000 miles for all US vehicles. Tesla is far safer even now, when its autonomous driving software is still being continually refined every single second that it drives on the roads.

Today, Uber alone delivers around 15 million trips per day, and Waymo, which has simulated 15 billion miles of autonomous driving till date, hopes to do 1 million miles of AV miles this year. Waymo can simulate a 100-year worth of on-road driving in a 24-hour simulation! The average car run time in much of the developed world is barely 5-8%, and Uber has created a whole new remarkable industry, using the unutilised time of these vehicles, creating millions of jobs out of thin air, without owning any cars. A self-driving Uber storm should happen within the next 1,000 days in most major markets, and will free up the driving time for doing many other activities.

Second, two Indians, based in Chennai and Singapore, former employees of The Hindu newspaper, bought the first ever NFT (non-fungible unique token on the Ethereum blockchain) art piece created by Beeple and auctioned by Christie’s for a whopping $70 million. This made Beeple one of the top-5 most valuable painters in the world for painting a painting which does not exist! This means that almost any object can potentially be ‘tokenised’ and put on sale, including this column, if there is a global market and a price for it. Mars House, the world’s first digital home in the Metaverse, which is a digital extension of our real world, sold for $500,000 and was paid for with Ether, a leading cryptocurrency.

Third, the government of India is currently undertaking drone-based asset mapping @5 cm resolution, for 6 lakh villages, to validate the holdings of 83 crore citizens, using just 500 high resolution drones, which would unlock the value of the properties as an asset against which loans can be secured. A drone can map the average village in about 15-20 minutes and the entire task is expected to be completed by 2024. In the pilot done in Uttar Pradesh, farmers who received drone-enabled property cards are able to approach banks for loans using their lands as collateral with accurate titles and valuations. (As an aside, Planet Labs, one of the world’s leading space technology companies, today photographs every single item on the planet 500 times a day, at 50 cm resolution, and has it in a searchable database). Imagine the value of the database that stores such vital information about physical assets!

In 2019, the Coffee Board of India used drones by Aarav Unmanned Systems for a quick flood damage assessment during widespread waterlogging, for a more scientific assessment for payment of compensation. It was completed within a couple of days, accurately mapping the specific survey numbers that were impacted. When this is done manually, it is not just delayed, but it is also often not accurate, for it is subject to local pressures and caste dynamics, thus becoming a source of corruption in distribution of relief payments. Likewise, Zipline today provides access to remotest parts of the world by delivering life-saving drugs and blood to save lives.

Fourth, did you think robots are in the distant future or something we see in Star Trek only? Think again. UR3, a cobot (co-working robot) which costs $23000 (the average annual salary of a worker), has begun to replace factory workers in various Amazon and Foxconn establishments, and robots created by Starship and Boston Dynamics are so human-like that they are rapidly replacing delivery boys and even flipping burgers. All through the pandemic, robots were commonplace in the Bay Area, delivering food, and in China to approach badly Covid-19 infected patients in containment zones to give them medicines etc.

Lastly, downloaded houses are happening everywhere and 3D printing is directly impacting lives every single day. AutoAbode, a midsized 3D printing company in Delhi, printed the skull of a child to enable reconstructive surgery at the Fortis hospital recently, which was not possible through conventional imaging. They also printed the handles for rocket launchers for our defence establishment, which was prone to frequent breaking in the field. Likewise, Icon, a US company, 3D printed the world’s first village in Tabasco, Mexico, printing the first few homes in under 24 hours! In 2018, Icon built the first-ever 3D printed home in the US, in Texas, which cost just about $4,000 to print. It is literally like concrete is put into the Vulcan II printer and a house emerges on the other side, on site. If only the government can get the CPWD to change its norms and standards of traditional construction to suit 3D printed and prefab construction, redevelopment of old government colonies in Delhi and creating new affordable homes across India on available government land can become a reality.

These are just a few examples of a technological tsunami that is hitting against our current conception of reality of everyday life—all of which will change inexorably within the next 10 years alone. Not to mention that with the ongoing deep learning advances, companies like Calico and Neuralink hope to defeat ageing and add/create a chip-augmented brain to defeat disease, respectively, which may happen in the course of the next generation or less. By the way, this piece was not written via AI/ML by a robot, though even that is already happening today, though I daresay I would be surprised if a robot can match my wit, humour, insights and sarcasm!

The author is an IAS officer. Views are personal

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