While we watch our political parties argue about when to turn the economy back on, one thing is clear. This COVID-19 event will not be our last Pandemic; it might not even be the last one this year if, as some suspect, we open the doors too early and this same virus spikes again. Now, based on what I hear, many, if not most, companies are considering making work at home more the rule than the exception once restrictions are lifted, but this will never work for everyone.
As with most disasters, we seem to operate tactically by attacking the symptoms of the problem, not the problem itself. For instance, sending out money that allows businesses and individuals to pay bills for a few weeks rather than investing in a technology that would enable people to get back to work safely. For instance, given how this virus propagates, adequate protective clothing that allowed people to work would provide a far more sustainable solution over a long time and better prepare employees for the next pandemic than a check will.
It occurred to me that we need three things to avoid having to shut down during the next pandemic (other than testing or vaccines, both of which can take months to years to develop). We need things we can implement quickly.
A Protective Suit
When I first worked for IBM, we were required to wear a three-piece suit (black or gray), white shirt, black shoes (watch out for wingtips), and I hated it with a passion. You even had to wear that suit if you were a tech, which was kind of problematic, mainly if you were working on an IBM printer and spilled the toner. But dress codes and uniforms were, at one time, pretty standard and it would seem we should be able to design clothing that would protect you against a virus (either from spreading it as we do with masks or getting it as we have in hospitals).
You wouldn’t need full medical-grade, though, because the contacts would be intermittent. If you enforced bans on physical contact (no shaking hands, for instance), you should be able to protect employees from a variety of viral pathogens, including the traditional flu and colds, all of which, during certain times of the year can severely impact individual performance.
I think we should start with the Intel Bunny Suit because people wear that for full shifts, they have been made in bright colors (my wife had a Purple one she donated to the Intel Museum). Variants of the suit can be individually heated and cooled for even better isolation (not to mention you could adjust the temperature to your personal comfort level. This suit should protect you, depending on the configuration, from having an allergy attack as well (something I’m currently struggling with, not loving Spring at the moment).
Against what we are capable of, video conferencing still sucks. I have been attending a ton of video conferenced events, and they range from entertainment-focused where a group of us try to keep a virtual audience engaged, to PowerPoint fests where we hear a disembodied voice read the slides to us. Most of them lack engagement and seem more focused on getting through the material than they are genuinely conveying a message.
Focusing just on presentations, I recently ran into a technology that could do the job. What Portl (this is not a misspelling) does is use holographic technology to make a remote speaker look like they are in the room with you. Check out the video. Now, this would allow a speaker to travel virtually and speak to an event, but what if you shrunk this down even farther and made it a desktop box? Used in conjunction with a monitor, you could have what appeared to be a miniature person on your desk talking to you.
The setup appears to be very easy, and their 2nd version is impressive. As impressive as this is, I do think Portl needs a better way for the speaker to see an audience that is also distributed and remote. But this would massively cut down on the need for executives to travel, and rather than an office, they might have one of these Portals for one-on-one meetings and then another portable unit for when they need to speak to a large audience.
This offering is the closest thing I have seen to teleportation in production and imagine if you could make this smaller and connect it when not being used to your digital assistant? You might get something like this, and suddenly Microsoft’s Cortana becomes a far more attractive option (check out the video). (Apparently, a few folks are working on this).
One quick way to get people out of the mix is to replace them with robots, and that could be anything from using the robots instead of people (like this robot that parks cars, this robotic receptionist, or this one being used for COVID-9 disinfecting) or uses robots for remote access (like bomb disposal). This latter category where the operator is remote would be ideal for security, reception, or other uses where you have people coming in interacting with the machine but where AI technology isn’t yet to a point where it functions in interactive situations well.
For several jobs where currently remote staffing does not work, a remote-controlled robot might be the ideal solution that would allow these people to function from secure, virus-free areas, while still interacting with people. (There are some Chinese efforts that are very human-looking). Tied to a remote operator, these could be deployed in places where human interaction is critical, but where virus transmission makes it unwise to place people.
This Pandemic is not the first and certainly will not be the last. We were ill-prepared for this one, and it is unlikely we will get back to anything approaching normal even after a vaccine is deployed. But we can prepare for the next event if we can improve the technology needed to allow people to safely work together, provide ways for more remote work options for people facing jobs, and finally make an effort to bring Holoportation into our offices and homes (this last would be cool regardless). In the end, we have the technology to avoid the next shut down. We simply need to advance it to a level where it will be ready for the next Pandemic event.