A Distant World: A Pandemic of Virtuality

Our closely packed cities are custom-made for spreading infectious diseases. Masses of people rubbing shoulders on sidewalks, packed like sardines in subways, clustered around conference tables sharing respiratory droplets, shaking dozens of hands a day, making those face to face contacts from dusk to dawn.

At least partially thanks to pandemic panic, we are more quickly moving to a dispersed and virtual world, where schools are online, work is from home, shopping is done on the web and delivered to your home, and social interaction/entertainment is electronically mediated.

Rise of Automation

Now that we’re not supposed to be touching each other or touching anything anyone else has touched, but we still need to eat, automating food preparation sounds appealing (and maybe necessary). Multiple food delivery services have already implemented a contactless delivery option, where customers can choose to have their food left on their doorstep.

Besides the opportunities for in-restaurant automation, “This is an opportunity for automation to happen at the last mile,” said Xing. Delivery drones, robots, and autonomous trucks and vans could all play a part. In fact, use of delivery drones has ramped up in China since the outbreak.

Speaking of deliveries, service robots have steadily increased in numbers at Amazon; as of late 2019, the company employed around 650,000 humans and 200,000 robots—and costs have gone down as robots have gone up.

ARK Invest’s research predicts automation could add $800 billion to US GDP over the next 5 years and $12 trillion during the next 15 years. On this trajectory, GDP would end up being 40 percent higher with automation than without it. __ Singularity Hub

The pandemic du jour is not a sufficient cause for the coming world of virtuality and dispersal. But it may be the final straw, the tipping point for much of what is coming.

It Happened Quickly for Schools

It is taking them about a month to move US higher education from campus to online:

With the first announcements of institutions shutting down f2f courses on March 6th, it appears that almost all moves to fully online delivery will have occurred by the week of April 6th (and just a handful of additional migrations over the following week). This four-week period shows remarkable adaptability by higher education institutions. What we are not seeing are mass closures through the spring academic term – schools are choosing to go online rather than to shut down operations beyond a transition period. While not shown fully in the graphic above, it appears that roughly half of schools chose some period of closure beyond Spring Break to help with the transition online. __ https://philonedtech.com/us-higher-ed-set-to-go-fully-online-in-just-four-weeks-due-to-covid-19/

A similar transformation on a smaller scale is taking place across much of the primary/secondary school systems.

Dispersing from Large Cities

Until recently, overlords of the “cultural elite” have been promoting hyper-urbanization and megacities, as cures for whatever fashionable crisis was being touted at the time. But with the Wuhan pandemic looming over their heads, many of these overlords are fleeing the cities for more dispersed environs.

In the US, known cases and deaths are overwhelmingly concentrated in the Seattle area, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, and New York. Gotham, with six percent of the US population, now accounts by itself for nearly half of the 18,000 cases in the country. Even the New York Times, a consistent booster for packing people into small spaces, now acknowledges that the city’s high densities are responsible for its much higher rate of infection even than relatively dense but far more dispersed areas like Los Angeles, which is equally diverse and global but still consists largely of single family houses.

In places like New York, crowded mass transit systems remain essential to many commuters, while suburban, exurban, and small-town residents get around in the sanctuary of their private cars. These patterns can be seen in a new report by the mid-American think tank Heartland Forward (where I am a senior fellow), which shows how relatively slight the impact has been outside of a few large urban centers on the coasts. Rural areas around the world have been largely spared, at least for now. The North American hinterlands, according to health professionals, benefit from less crowding and unwanted human contact.

Living in dispersion may not save you from contagion, but being away from people, driving around in your own car, and having neighbors you know, does have its advantages in times like these. Even the urban cognoscenti have figured this out—much as their Renaissance predecessors did during typhus and bubonic plague outbreaks, wealthy New Yorkers today are retreating to their country homes where they struggle with the locals over depleted supplies of essentials. __ A Coming Dispersion

Automation, Virtual Living, Dispersion

3-D printing is another technology that may be boosted by today’s pandemic milieu. These devices are being used to print face shields, essential parts for respirators, and a number of other vital medical supplies which seem to be in short supply lately. More

3D printers will also be used to print pharmaceuticals, and to provide personal drug delivery services in the home. This would be a useful service at any time, but particularly during times of pandemic. More on 3D drugs.

Another useful medical tool in pandemic times is home medical tests. Many people monitor their blood sugars, blood pressures, and blood oxygen levels at home — to say nothing of home pregnancy tests. There are several iPhone apps to monitor the owner’s health. We can expect the home testing arsenal to expand rapidly in a short time.

A surge in demand for telemedicine makes a great deal of sense. Telemedicine cannot do surgery or provide intensive care services, but it can help determine if one truly needs such things on an urgent basis.

With the rise of new tools of automation and virtuality, can dispersal be far behind?

… the bulk of the new growth of the “creative class”—the well-educated millennials critical to the urban renaissance—is “shifting away from superstar cities.” The rise in the migration of such prized workers is now two to three times faster in Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Grand Rapids, MI than in regions around New York, Los Angeles, or Washington, D.C. __ Quillette

The bigger cities will not empty out — at least not because of this pandemic. But they are no longer seen as such a net positive location, when people are taking infectious disease risk into account.

For better or worse, this pandemic will likely make us pick up the pace on our path to automation, across many sectors and processes. The solutions people implement during this crisis won’t disappear when things go back to normal (and, depending who you talk to, they may never really do so).

But let’s make sure to remember something. Even once robots are making our food and drones are delivering it, and our computers are doing data entry and email replies on our behalf, and we all have 3D printers to make anything we want at home—we’re still going to be human. And humans like being around each other. We like seeing one another’s faces, hearing one another’s voices, and feeling one another’s touch—in person, not on a screen or in an app. __ Singularity Hub

83 pp PDF report “The Age of Automation

Assuming that the new age of automation will usher in “an era of unprecedented abundance,” who will benefit the most?

Most importantly, we need to begin a conversation about who owns the machines and how to distribute their proceeds more fairly. While for most of human history our problems have revolved around issues of material scarcity, the new machine age promises to bring about an era of unprecedented abundance – more than enough to meet everyone’s needs. The question is whether we have the political courage and conviction to share the wealth wisely. __ https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/reports/the-age-of-automation

The book Homo Deus presents an interesting set of speculations on this question.

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