An Enabling Environment

New-age technologies close the gap in times of social distancing

The role of technology and digitalisation in facilitating business and daily lives in the Covid-19 climate cannot be over emphasised. In a situation where social distancing and working from home have become the new way of life, technology solutions are enabling business continuity. Virtual reality (VR) and video meetings are helping employees collaborate, automation is helping companies conduct operations without human intervention, e-commerce is helping critical supplies reach the last mile, digital payments are precluding the need for money exchange and thus keeping infection at bay, edutech platforms are ensuring continuity in classes and telemedicine platforms are enabling doctors to conduct OPD activities online.

For India, which has been somewhat slow to adopt smart technology solutions such as automation, artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR) and VR, the Covid-19 crisis has prompted it to leap in. Enterprises, both large and small, have been compelled to realign their strategies and leverage new-age technologies and remote solutions to connect, communicate and collaborate.

Driven by the technology thrust, the country may see a new wave of innovation in medical robotics, with robots delivering drugs, monitoring patient temperatures and disinfecting hospital rooms in order to reduce human exposure to infection. In the longer term, less-contact business models around near-autonomous warehouses, robotics, drone delivery systems, and 3D/ additive manufacturing are going to become mainstream.

One world, many realities – AR, VR, MR

AR, VR and mixed reality (MR) technologies have existed for many years now, but they have failed to find mass-scale adoption. Despite billions of dollars being spent by Facebook, HTC and other organisations in developing VR gear, there has been a lack of a robust ecosystem for VR applications. So far, VR has found takers only in the gaming industry, despite its potential in other sectors too.

Covid-19 and the ensuing lockdown are changing this scenario rapidly. Demand for these solutions has spiked significantly in the past two months worldwide.

VR is a step ahead of videoconferencing solutions and is best suited in situations where precision is required. The biggest advantage of this medium is its ability to make individuals feel as if they are in a shared space. Such virtual environments can help people work together in real time, in a collaborative manner. An added advantage of VR is that it expels all distractions and individuals can stay completely focused. Educational institutions are now exploring VR to conduct lectures. VR is also proving extremely beneficial for manufacturing companies that need to constantly train their staff but do not always have the option to send physical trainers, especially in the current situation.

Similarly, event management companies can use VR to provide a real-world feel, for instance, of being in an expo or a conference. Virtual events and conferences are gaining traction in current times, and product launches and brand awareness campaigns are now being hosted as live virtual events, with thousands of people engaging and interacting.

Intelligent machines – AI, analytics and automation

McKinsey, in one of its reports in 2017, had predicted that a third of the workers in the US would be replaced by robots and automotive solutions by 2030. Courtesy Covid-19, this may happen sooner. For instance, both Facebook and Google are relying on AI to remove inappropriate posts since the companies’ human content moderators cannot review certain things from home.

Industries that have high end-user touchpoints such as banks, insurance and retail are using AI/machine learning (ML)-driven analytics and cognitive technologies to automate their communications, and streamline predictions and decision-making. Incorporating AI into mundane but critical administrative functions can relieve enterprises of unprecedented strain on resources.

Several companies are using AI, ML and natural language processing to crunch petabytes of data and build predictive or prescriptive models and contingency plans for business continuity. In these unprecedented times, AI is also being developed to replace school tutors, fitness trainers and financial advisers.

Even IT companies, which are staring at a slowdown in their hardware and software businesses, are looking at emerging technologies such as big data and AI to add value for their customers.

On a rise – Cloud and virtualisation

As remote working and collaboration become the new normal amidst the lockdown, there is a growing pressure on cloud networks. Businesses are intensifying remote working and increasingly depending on digital communications for employee and customer interaction. This has resulted in a demand for resilient, accessible and affordable cloud infrastructure. Cloud providers have been experiencing a demand surge of at least 20-40 per cent for data, cloud and co-location services. As per Ashwin Kumar, director, Data Centre and Cloud Operations, Linode India, an open cloud provider, “During the first two weeks of the lockdown, we saw a demand spike of almost 100 per cent. That spike has settled into a roughly 75 per cent rise in utilisation. We suspect this increased demand will continue as companies look to alternative providers to better manage their cloud computing costs and strengthen their multi-cloud and business continuity implementations.”

With cloud planning taking centre stage, data centre services are also gaining traction. According to Kumar, the demand for co-location services is growing, especially among companies in the banking, e-commerce and over-the-top (OTT) sectors. Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) too are rethinking their business models and rapidly moving to the cloud to enable collaboration and remote working, minimise IT expenses and manage fluctuating demand.

However, the growing cloud uptake brings to the fore concerns around cybersecurity and data privacy, and several organisations as well as governments are expected to look at the subject of data localisation more seriously. Clearly, countries are likely to be averse to the idea of their data being stored in data hubs that are oceans away, with little to no direct control over it.

Sector positive – Edutech, digital banking get a boost

While enterprises struggle to come to grips with the Covid-19-led situation, some sectors are finding their niche. Edutech is one of them. The outbreak has clearly increased the appreciation for online education and this could mark a turning point for the industry. Analysts believe that the mass-scale adoption that would likely have taken about five years may now happen in the next five months. Online education and training platforms are reporting a surge in subscriber numbers as people are using the time saved on commuting to sign up for online education programmes to upskill themselves. Courtesy the social distancing compulsions, next-generation technologies such as VR, AR and holography have seen an uptick. They are providing children an interactive experience during remote classroom training. VR can make learning much more immersive while AR can help in contextual learning. AI too can help in making learning more adaptive and personalised. Teachers are finding AI-driven chatbots very useful in enhancing student experience.

Interestingly, most players in this space are offering free courses and online video counselling services, which has helped drive up demand. For instance, Gradeup has seen a 25 per cent uptick in daily enrolments since it doubled the number of free video offerings on its platform in light of the coronavirus outbreak.

Banking and financial services is yet another sector that is expected to witness a rise in digitalisation in the wake of the pandemic. While the front-end operations of several banks have undergone a digital transformation over the past few years, optimisation of the back-end operations has not been a priority. But the Covid-19 situation is compelling banks to eliminate their dependence on manual entries and person-led reviews (paper and employee intervention). The current crisis is giving a much-needed push to banks, especially PSU banks, to adopt cutting-edge technologies. Analysts believe that banks will see higher usage of containerisation, cloud computing, AI and blockchain. Meanwhile, digital payments are already emerging as the preferred mode of transactions even for smaller amounts. The government is urging people to avoid cash payments in order to avoid virus transmission, and many public and private sector banks have waived charges for digital transactions for the time being.

Conclusion

The ongoing crisis will have a lasting impact on the way enterprises and individuals do business, with a major shift towards the adoption of digital technologies. This, clearly, is an inflection point for the accelerated deployment of agile technologies, especially by SMEs.

What seems to be a stop gap arrangement today is likely to become the new normal for organisations, which will operate more digitally in the coming years. The crisis may indeed prove to be a game changer for India’s digital landscape and expedite the country’s transition to a digital economy.

Akanksha Mahajan Marwah

 

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