Photo of a robotic hand

Technology gives us hope we can do more than cope

The other day, as I was in my home office conducting a Webex meeting with my leadership team, my 10-year-old son, Simon, sat nearby at the rolltop desk that sometimes doubles as his study carrel. He was on Zoom, taking a virtual robotics class one of his teachers is offering as a summer-enrichment program. 

It struck me yet again — how much daily work and life have changed, and yet has been able to carry on, thanks to technologies that even a few years ago weren’t as widely used as they’ve suddenly become. 

That’s why, even as the world continues to battle COVID-19 and — at least in the U.S. — to reach an overdue reckoning with racial injustice and economic inequality, technology can give us reason to hope. By more fully embracing technologies whose adoption the crisis has made essential, we can hope that businesses and society more broadly can emerge smarter — and fairer. 

I’m thinking of technologies that have let business carry on, in new and more resilient ways. Consider the accelerated adoption of more robust, secure, flexible and ubiquitous networks that will make it possible to do all sorts of jobs remotely — even operating machines like the ones scientists use to conduct experiments. This has been made easier by the business world’s growing adoption of cloud computing. 

There has also been a faster transition to the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) — whether to help public health agencies handle a flood of COVID-19 queries or AI algorithms and blockchain digital ledgers that have helped food companies quickly find new, trustworthy workarounds for interrupted supply chains. 

And as more commerce has gone virtual, we’ve come to realize that at least some business travel may no longer be necessary. Besides saving wear and tear on the road warriors, the growing acceptance of virtual collaboration means geography will be less a factor in determining who can work with whom. We have a greater ability to tap business talent and expertise wherever it can be found, whether in a large city on the other side of the world or in a small town in the U.S. heartland.

What’s more, the environmental benefits of fewer hours spent in planes, trains and automobiles can also help us address that other big continuing crisis: climate change. 

Technology can help us solve the climate problem in so many ways. Scientists are using supercomputers to develop batteries that can store huge amounts of solar or wind energy to support the utility grid when the sun doesn’t shine, or the breeze dies down. They’re also using quantum computers to create molecular models that might lead to new materials that could remove excess CO2 from the atmosphere. 

And of course, technology is playing a big role in our response to the more immediate crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic. Thanks in large part to the sharing of supercomputers and AI technology by corporations and public agencies, medical research has gone into overdrive in the race to understand the coronavirus’ cellular mechanisms and develop effective therapies and vaccines. 

It’s way too soon to declare success. In coming years, though, the work now underway could lead to new, faster methods for medical research that better prepare the world for the next species-leaping virus.

Not all the technologies that give us hope are as exotic as supercomputers or quantum machines. Think, for example, about the viral videos and the power of social media that have enabled Black Lives Matter to quickly grow into one of the largest and most socially inclusive protest movements in U.S. history. 

This movement has forced society to confront the social and economic inequality that have made the pandemic more deadly to people of color and low-income groups. These realizations have made something else glaringly evident: The best jobs now and in the future will be ones requiring access to, and a facility with, digital technology. We must make sure everyone has the chance to acquire the necessary know-how — the new-collar skills that can let people fully participate in the tech-enabled economic future, hastened by the pandemic. 

We need to make sure that, as businesses and society emerge smarter from these historic crises, we can do more than merely survive. We must ensure that the best technologies are accessible to as many people as possible. Only then, together, can we hope to thrive. 

Jonathan Adashek is Chief Communications Officer at IBM. Jonathan previously held senior roles at Nissan, Microsoft and Edelman. He is a member of the USC Annenberg Center for PR Board of Advisors.