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Internet of Things July 2020 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: David Strachan-Olson

Connected Systems for Combating the Covid-19 Pandemic

Why is this topic significant?

As the global covid-19 pandemic continues, many researchers and companies are developing and implementing new digital tools to help address the challenges that the pandemic presents.

Description

Many stakeholders are focusing on minimizing the spread of severe-acute-respiratory-syndrome coronavirus 2 and detecting people with infection symptoms. Government officials in many countries have been leveraging smartphone location data in several ways. Many governments—including those of Italy, Germany, and Austria—have leveraged anonymized smartphone location data to understand how well populations are heeding stay-at-home orders. Other countries, such as South Korea, are using smartphone location data as part of contact tracing to control the spread of the virus. Companies and governments are rushing to implement contact-tracing systems that rely on Bluetooth communications between devices. Apple and Google are working together to develop application-programming interfaces to improve Bluetooth interoperability between Android and iOS devices for use in government contact-tracing apps. The two companies have also reported that they "will work to enable a broader Bluetooth-based contact tracing platform by building this functionality into the underlying platforms." A number of companies are marketing small wearable devices for factory and warehouse workers that notify employees if they get too close together and log interactions between employees.

Some governments—including those of China, India, and the United States—and organizations, such as hospitals and manufacturers, are also deploying smart thermal cameras that detect a person's temperature from a distance. Officials in China are placing temperature-detection systems in public places with high volumes of pedestrian traffic, such as subway stations, and some companies are using these systems at employee entrances to detect symptoms in workers.

IoT devices and big-data tools can also provide insights into how the virus is spreading. Canadian company BlueDot released a warning about a new emerging coronavirus in China to its clients almost a week before the World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released their first reports. BlueDot's system analyzes more than 100,000 documents a day in 65 languages, looking for signs of diseases, and correlates this information with other data, including global air travel, local mobility, and climate. Another company, Kinsa, claims its network of connected thermometers was able to detect a rise in the number of fevers a few days before officials classified regions as coronavirus-disease-2019 (covid-19) hot spots.

Implications

The covid-19 pandemic is still spreading in many countries around the world, so governments and businesses are in need of solutions to help track and slow the spread of the disease. Novel connected devices and digital tracking tools could be valuable resources for understanding and slowing the spread of the virus as communities and businesses reopen. With more time and resources, companies will likely find other new unexpected ways to use devices and digital tools to deal with challenges the virus creates.

Impacts/Disruptions

Although demand exists for systems to help combat the covid-19 pandemic currently, the longer-term outlook for such systems is uncertain. During the next few years, governments might decide to keep systems in place to monitor for resurgences or mutations of the virus responsible for covid-19. Further out, governments and companies might use similar systems to help fight other infectious diseases, such as new strains of flu, and prepare for future pandemics. However, these systems might also raise privacy concerns, which could lead to public calls for their dismantling after the covid-19 pandemic subsides. Corporate decision makers will need to consider these potential outcomes before making decisions to develop such products.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years to 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Thermal cameras, computer vision, Bluetooth communications, big-data technologies, connected devices, environmental sensing

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Sidewalk Labs Takes a Step Back

Why is this topic significant?

Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs is walking away from its ambitious smart-city project in Toronto, Canada, which could affect the direction of future smart-city projects.

Description

Sidewalk Labs, the Alphabet subsidiary developing smart-city technology to rethink how to build cities, is ending its Quayside project, which was intended to transform a section of Toronto, Canada, into a test smart city. Sidewalk Labs cited "unprecedented economic uncertainty" in the wake of the global coronavirus-disease-2019 (covid-19) pandemic as the reason for backing away from the project. However, the project had also received sizable public pushback over the years about privacy and the company's influence over the project.

The Quayside project was one of the most ambitious privately led smart-city projects in the world. Sidewalk Labs was going to invest up to $1.3 billion and hoped to spur up to $38 billion in total private-sector investment by 2040. Plans envisioned a community with ground-up design for digital connectivity and sustainability. Notable features included mass-produced timber housing, heated and illuminated sidewalks, public Wi-Fi, and myriad sensors to monitor traffic, street life, and other aspects of the city.

Implications

The cancellation of the Quayside project is a major setback for Sidewalk Labs. Although the uncertain economic climate is a valid reason for Sidewalk Labs to walk away from the project, growing public pushback against the project might have been an additional factor. The idea of a Google-related technology company developing a sensor-laden community stoked privacy fears among some members of the public. A few high-profile technology stakeholders have also taken issue with the project. Roger McNamee, a notable US venture capitalist and early investor in Facebook and Google, told the Toronto City Council that "the smart city project on the Toronto waterfront is the most highly evolved version to date of...surveillance capitalism." He went on to say that "it is a dystopian vision that has no place in a democratic society." In 2018, Jim Balsillie, cofounder of Research In Motion, made a similar argument, calling the project "a colonizing experiment in surveillance capitalism attempting to bulldoze important urban, civic and political issues."

Impacts/Disruptions

Google's cancellation of the Quayside project could signal a rough road ahead for smart-city initiatives—in particular those that large technology companies lead. Building from the ground up, from a unified plan and framework by a single company, might enable an advanced city, but privacy concerns and local politics could make such cities impossible in North America and potentially Europe. Instead, programs that governments lead and innovations by individual companies, which add connectivity to their specific operations, might do more to shape the direction and development of smart cities in these regions. Such an approach would provide oversight by local residents but would slow development efforts and could make selling products and services to multiple cities difficult for companies.

In comparison, Chinese cities are taking a top-down government approach from the central government. Local authorities work with companies to implement projects quickly and enable interoperability between systems. With China's unique considerations for privacy and its top-down approach to smart cities, Chinese companies may be able to advance smart-city technology very rapidly and sell the technology to countries as part of China's Belt and Road Initiative.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium to High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: Now to 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Smart cities, computer vision, sensor networks, connected utilities, traffic management, urban logistics, privacy, big-data analytics

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: