Peering Into the COVID-19 End Game

illustration of security camera in a upside down triangular "caution" looking sign
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By: Mark Pesce

Spoiler alert: We won’t get what we want in 2021. A year into the COVID-19 pandemic, we can expect to remain in a kind of limbo for months yet, stuck in an uncomfortable place between health and illness, economic contraction and recovery, all while still maintaining awkward distances and yearning for heartwarming hugs.

We will, however, get what we need. There’ll be new tools, customs, and shared experiences to help us manage this weird time between the pre-COVID world and the postpandemic era. With the help of these things we’ll get better at persevering, as we adapt and develop new means of working and playing. We’ll even find novel ways of being together without, you know, being together. The diverse array of innovations that will emerge this year—medical, technical, occupational, and cultural—will surprise, dismay, and in some cases, delight us. And some of them, deeply woven into the fabric of everyday life, will persist long after the pandemic becomes a somber memory.

As the pandemic began to accelerate in March, April, and May of last year, the idea of a life lived primarily online became a sudden and immediate reality for tens, then hundreds of millions who huddled in front of screens to work, to meet, to learn, to socialize. And to buy. By April, in the United States and other developed countries, e-commerce had surged to levels more commonly associated with Cyber Monday—every day of the month. Students kept at home because of lockdowns learned how to master a new range of communications tools, while educators found themselves fighting those same tools in order to continue to connect with their classes.

Throughout this massive online migration we’ve learned, again, that fortune favors the fortunate: those with good computers, good smartphones, and access to stable, high-speed broadband connectivity. Disadvantaged students fell further behind as they lost access to the human resources available in the classroom, tumbling headlong into a digital divide that both deepened and broadened over the course of the pandemic. As things stabilize this year, we’ll see efforts toward healing that divide across education, work, and commerce.

Even before April, Singapore, China, and Taiwan had begun using smartphones to automate the painstaking, messy, and complicated business of contact tracking and tracing. As the pandemic spread, these app-based approaches did work well in about a half dozen countries in Asia. But in the West, initial high hopes dissolved amid a flurry of concerns that the experimental apps did too little to protect privacy. Even the most rigorous implementations, which modified iOS or Android to provide new application programming interfaces specifically for contact tracing, seemed to fail exactly where they were needed most, on public transport.

The gold-standard approach in smartphone-based tracking and tracing, pioneered in Taiwan, collects data on individual movement using cellphone towers. As a user moves around, the phone’s signal is detected by multiple towers, which triangulate the user’s location. This movement data can then be cross-correlated with that of other users to find out when and where two people got close to each other. If somebody later turns out to have been infected, a record of all those close contacts can be quickly compiled.

There’s a term for this sort of tracking: ubiquitous, passive surveillance. Wireless carriers have of course been tracking their customers’ comings and goings for decades. It’s something most people seem reluctant to ponder while they benefit from the always-on, wherever-they-go coverage of wireless networks. In Western countries especially, use of this location data collected by carriers is restricted by regulations drawn up long before the value of universal tracking to public health became apparent.

The tension between civil liberties and public health as been a consistent flash point during the pandemic, in ways that seem little different from a century ago, during the global pandemic of 1918. We’ve learned that technology doesn’t absolve us of the need for vigilance. We’ve also learned that apps by themselves cannot provide the solution or even prevent contact tracers from becoming overwhelmed as an outbreak accelerates. Where the pandemic has been controlled, technology can be very helpful; where it has not, it is of little use.

Other surveillance tools we’ve come to accept in the public sphere could this year get more intrusive. Take webcams, which have long been used to monitor parking lots, public spaces, private property, and baby nurseries. This year, expect to see webcams repurposed to monitor offices, reminding people to maintain social distance and also recording any potentially infectious interactions.

Some jobs, though, for example in the food, retail, and construction industries, are hard to do in isolation. For these, different tools will be needed, ones that automatically monitor and accumulate the risks of sporadic proximity to other people within the workplace. As those interactions reach a critical threshold, workers will have little choice but to move to lower-risk activities and environments until their exposure risk drops to a safer level. Although all of this is already possible with existing technologies and infrastructures, no one likes to be under the eye of the boss all the time, even for the best of intentions. And workers who resent being watched will find ways to thwart observation.

Office surveillance will be just the first ripple in a surge of Web-based workplace tools. Many businesses have of course already transitioned to long-term work-from-home policies. But the twin stressors of scale (everyone) and duration (all the time) have revealed weaknesses that still need to be addressed.

Here’s a big one: Most corporate networks have been designed to be outward-facing—in other words, to connect a business center with the world. But with the center now depopulated, network infrastructure needs more than an upgrade: It needs to be reconfigured to be more inward focused. This new reality has already accelerated a massive migration to cloud-based solutions. The biggest cloud providers, including Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Salesforce, will all benefit.

All the tools that can’t be moved into the cloud will be rethought, redesigned, or simply abandoned as too insecure or unstable for long-term remote work. Just as 2020 saw a huge uptick in laptop sales, 2021 will see a hike in sales of servers, networking equipment, and all the physical infrastructure needed to serve a remote-first organization.

No amount of physical infrastructure, though, will be able to provide what we’ll arguably need the most this year: human connection. But emerging technologies, notably in the realm of AI, are on the verge of making the remote experience a lot less clunky.

Offices are microcosms of our societies. They bring us together, then give us an incentive to cooperate. With the right leadership, this congregation can produce spectacular results. The best leaders create an environment where employees feel they are held in mind. It’s a bit of management magic that’s pretty hard to deliver remotely.

The longer a team works remotely, the less likely it is to embrace an esprit de corps. Team meetings, standups, and progress reports delivered via videoconferencing are typically more excruciating than inspirational. Part of the reason is the patchy nature of broadband connectivity: It’s quite uneven, even in rich countries like the United States and the United Kingdom.

Late in 2020, graphics giant Nvidia offered one potential solution to this technical shortfall: a software development kit called Maxine that uses advanced AI capabilities available in the company’s next-generation GPUs. The software can analyze an incoming video stream from a webcam, remove any artifacts, and transmit upstream a higher-quality image using significantly less bandwidth. For those who have the necessary processor capacities (cheap laptops won’t have the right stuff), it means a better remote-working experience.

This year we could face new pitfalls in remote work, too. Some of these will arise from a soft underbelly of security issues that could be defended against when everyone shared a common office. Distance makes all of that much harder, and this means that security policies will become more strict, more onerous, and more costly. Nothing comes for free, and 2021 will be the year we explore the necessary costs of working from home.

Consider deepfakes. Over the last few years, we’ve seen how images of presidents, movie stars, and even long-dead Dutch masters can be turned into software-driven puppets, capable of being made to do anything. An aural equivalent of a deepfake can be used to synthesize the voice of anyone who provides a few minutes of audio to work with. We can now get anyone to seemingly say anything.

Soon, hackers might not even need a human to control the puppet. In 2020, OpenAI unveiled its GPT-3 text-generation engine, capable of fooling most of the people some of the time with its topical (if occasionally nonsensical) outputs. Combine GPT-3 with a deepfake and—voilà!—you’ve got an autonomous computer construct that looks real, sounds real, and even gives the appearance of thinking. In 2021, such creations will continue to fall short of passing a Turing test, but they could work just well enough to be the weapon of choice in a social-engineering hack. When your CEO Zooms in to say she can’t log into her account, how do you respond? Do you reset her password credentials, granting her access to the corporate network? (Hint: No.) Or do you demand two-factor authentication, to prove it’s really your boss?

By the end of 2021, with a vaccine and some good fortune, we will be venturing outside of our homes, traveling around far more freely than we are now. For the time being, the comforts and pleasures of home have never been so important, nor so accessible. All of our toys will go through their usual upgrade cycles over the next year. There’ll be new smartphones, next-generation game consoles, turbocharged graphics cards, and a heap of games to play. But do we really want to spend endless hours interacting with entertainments that emphasize our separation from others, or do we want to find some way to be together (kinda sorta) even when we’re forced apart?

Developers will find some sweet spots somewhere between Zoom fatigue and an in-person social-gaming experience like Pokémon Go. These will create experiences offering connection and community while minimizing the risk of infection. Some of this will be locative: keeping people at home, or close to it. Some will be temporal: keeping people out of the same spaces at the same time. We’ve never been forced to shape collaborative play to fit within the constraints of a pandemic. And yet, somewhat paradoxically, these limits could spur creativity.

For example: the two-year-old game Among Us was only modestly successful before becoming the surprise hit of 2020. Like the party game MafiaAmong Us gets a group of online players to murder, lie, and accuse one another, offering a safe but rich social experience well-suited to pandemic lockdowns. The smash hits of 2021, shaped by postlockdown social-distancing constraints, will take us to places and times that enhance our safety, yet continuously delight, or infuriate, through their connections to other players. We will be playing together and always feeling one another’s presence. And yet we’ll never actually be in the same place at the same time.

A new generation of augmented-reality software and sensors, such as the lidar in the iPhone 12 Pro, will land in all our devices, not just our smartphones. Most notably, we could see early, developer-centric launches of long-anticipated consumer AR headsets from both Facebook and Apple [see “This Is the Year for Apple’s AR Glasses—Maybe”].

Everything that we’re now learning about augmenting the real world, for example adding ”digital depth” to games or for industrial purposes, will become part of a core set of capacities and expectations for all technologies throughout this decade. Just as we’ve spent the last three decades piling human knowledge into the Web, we’re on the cusp of investing another decade or two taking all of the data and metadata we’ve built up about our physical environment and all the things that occupy space and making that accessible and easy to understand through augmented-reality displays.

When we augment space, though, we change it. When we inhabit this augmented space, for example, by walking around a city seeing a continuous overlay of information about what we are looking at, we change our behaviors in it. That can open new possibilities for play, but it also means the world can speak directly to us, guiding us toward better, less risky (and less infectious) choices. That’s more important now than it has ever been.

This year, we’ll live somewhere between the chaos of the pandemic and the business-as-usual world beckoning to us from 2022. Being stuck there may bring feelings almost beyond our ability to bear. We’ll need distractions, and in particular, the endless distractions of one another. The closer we can safely get to one another, the happier we will be. Held in mind and in heart, though, we’ll at last emerge from the long trek back to safety and normality. In the meantime, we can distract, we can augment, we can connect, and we can play. All of it will feel more like work than we’d like.

But there’s a silver lining: We’ll learn important lessons that we can carry forward in our lives and careers. This year won’t be easy. But we needn’t—and shouldn’t—make the journey alone.

This article appears in the January 2021 print issue as “Peering Into the Pandemic End Game.”

This article originally appeared in IEEE Spectrum on 6 January 2021.