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Our connected world meets COVID19

Nine Engineers Behind The Technologies We Depend On Share Their Views

This page is reproduced with thanks to The Marconi Society and our Board Advisor, Vint Cerf.

Our connected world meets COVID19

By Vinton Cerf, Marconi Society Chair, Recipient with Robert E. Kahn of the Marconi Prize, the A.M. Turing Award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Japan Prize and the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering for their technical contributions and leadership in creating and evolving the Internet.

As we wrap our heads around the new normal of sheltering in place and trying to care for those in our communities that are truly devastated by COVID-19, the technologies that connect us – from the Internet to wireless to GPS – are now the first line of contact and defense for nearly everything we do.

We are in a perfect storm of necessity, technology and mindset.  

Necessity has been thrust upon us.  We now have the technology to go virtual relatively quickly and to collect and manage data that shows trends and helps us make decisions – from Stanford University flipping virtual in two days to the role of AI in identifying and projecting the pandemic.  Most importantly, because of heightened awareness around the threat of climate change and nuclear war, we hopefully now have the mindset to make permanent changes in our behavior around energy use, global collaboration for large problems and serious planning for the next pandemic.  

2020 will go down in history as a time when the rules changed and our lack of preparedness  led to massive economic side-effects while overwhelming our health care system.

Shutting down the economy has extremely disparate impact on various parts of the US population, with those in the lower economic strata far less able to weather the effects. For people who can work at home, the effects may be disruptive but not necessarily dire. For many others, this is not the case.

Information and communications technologies have created a remarkable ability to connect, inform, work remotely and innovate. While these capabilities benefit the world in a wide range of ways, their benefits are not distributed equally. For those with little or no access to the Internet, working at home (or schooling at home) is much harder or impossible. There is also much work that simply cannot be accomplished online and we must protect the health and economic condition of people in those fields.   

Access to scientific and medical information in times of crisis is critical. The potential for misinformation and disinformation to pollute public thinking is equally of great concern. Helping people find good quality advice and accurate information must be high on everyone’s agenda. We must work together to weed out misrepresentation by not spreading rumor, unconfirmed guesses and deliberate disinformation. Critical thinking is called for by all parties.

While I am reasonably confident that we will survive this crisis, I hope we will take into account how important preparation and foresight will be moving forward to protect against future pandemics. There is no question in my mind that another will come and we must be more ready for the next than we have been for this one.

Building the connected world that we all rely on requires vision, tenacity, humility and unwavering optimism.  These qualities continue to shine through when I asked my colleagues for their views on the lasting impacts of COVID-19.

Communications and Medical Technology Will Combine to Save Lives

Claude Berrou invented the ground-breaking Turbo-codes which led to modern advances in wireless, satellite and radio communications and have been incorporated into billions of devices.  Berrou is the recipient of the Marconi Prize, the Médialle Ampère and the IEEE Information Theory Golden Jubilee Award for Technological Innovation.

A little over a hundred years ago, the Spanish flu epidemic (caused by an H1N1 virus) infected about three percent of the world’s population and wiped out more than fifty million human beings.

Imagine my grandfather, a survivor of the First World War, reuniting with his family in a remote part of the Breton countryside and learning from the local newspaper about the rapid and violent advance of this new enemy, which was invisible. For him, the newspaper was the only way to get information and to find the few pieces of advice the authorities could then give, including the measure of quarantine, which was unfortunately late in coming.

Today, like the vast majority of my compatriots in all parts of France and the world, I am obliged to stay at home confronted by an enemy that is just as invisible and devious as H1N1. But I have a new ally that my grandfather did not know: technology, and especially the Internet.

Technology allows me to be constantly connected to the world in order to receive the information that my family and I need to minimize risks and dangers. It also provides me with news from all over the world, so that I can read or listen to expert analyses and forecasts and ideally stay hopeful.

In all likelihood, the combination of communications technology and medical technology , which has made astounding advances in recent decades, will contain the fatalities from COVID-19 so that they will be considerably fewer than those of the Spanish flu. These tens of millions of lives saved are thanks to many admirable people in the medical world and research laboratories.  Their dedication is now multiplied by outstanding advances in technology, especially in computing and electronics. Technology is going to save many lives.

Industry Collaboration to Make Internet Services Work for All Consumers

John Cioffi conducted the pioneering research to create Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) technology, bringing broadband Internet to millions of consumers and businesses globally.  Cioffi has been honored with the Marconi Prize and the IEEE Alexander Graham Bell Medal and has been named an Economist Magazine Telecommunications Innovator of the Year.

The COVID-19 pandemic’s emergence and exponential spread has highlighted the mission-critical nature of residential networks.  Home networks are now lifelines, connecting us to colleagues, customers, co-workers, patients, and investors, not to mention friends, family, and entertainment.  Many more people would be unemployed or be contributing less to the economy if not for this connectivity. 

Data shows that demand for downlink bandwidth in areas affected by the pandemic have risen on average by 30% and uplink bandwidths by 50-100%.   Those increases may not yet have peaked.  Such increased demand creates unexpected contention issues, which might be evident in metallic-sounding voice distortion in video-conferences, lost connections or interrupted streaming.

Meeting this increased demand will require Internet service providers (e.g., large and smaller phone and cable companies), application providers (e.g., smartphone companies, social media companies, financial institutions, healthcare providers, teleconferencing companies, distance learning companies and other) and the entire industry to work together to make consumer applications work seamlessly.  

No longer should an Internet Service Provider, phone or cable company or application provider blame a customer problem on another company.  Telephone/cable companies and application providers cannot, even accidentally, disadvantage competitive application providers by leveraging  the connection-data that they have but may not want to share because that may compete with their own desire to offer applications. 

When the customer’s overall experience is poor, it costs the entire industry money.  The combination of diagnostic and learned optimizations of both Internet provider and application providers’ connectivity-related data is very powerful.   We can improve services for consumers, and the current pandemic provides an opportunity and an imperative for the industry to come together. 

We must work towards a “home-centric life” future that is accessible to all at mass-market price points with largely inclusive ecosystem programs.

A New Normal for Personal Contact

Martin Cooper developed the concept of the handheld portable phone and led the team at Motorola that created the wireless industry.  Cooper is the recipient of the Marconi Prize, the National Academy of Engineering Charles Stark Draper Prize and the IEEE Centennial Medal.

The coronavirus has, as is true with every human crisis, brought out the extremes in human behavior. Our response is a testament to the durability of humanity and, in many ways, technology and technologists are dominating this positive effort. Especially notable is the diversion of university resources to address specific Corona issues.

The coronavirus is not the worst catastrophe to befall mankind: we have survived far worse and will survive this. It is reasonably certain that we will have a vaccine within 18 months. It is likely that we will have some form of medication in a much shorter time. And it is probable that the actions we are taking will reduce the effect of the virus to manageable proportions in a matter of months. But it is certain that most of us will change our behavior indefinitely.

  • Like most of us, my friends and colleagues are now using Skype and Zoom. While these apps are more time efficient than face-to-face meetings, they are deficient in other respects. As we gain skills in remote meeting and as the capabilities evolve, there will be more remote meeting and less travel. The Corona crisis will accelerate this change.  
  • We no longer shake hands, hug or kiss. Will we learn how to do that again? There is something special about the human contact from handshakes and hugs that creates a much faster and deeper connection than an elbow or toe touch.
  • We stand further apart than has been customary. The nuances of facial expression that are so important in communications are now harder to discern. Further, the amount of space it takes for conversation involving more than two people greatly reduces intimacy in homes and offices and restaurants. How close will we get to each other again?
  • The fear of the Corona virus makes us leery of creating new relationships and stresses the existing ones.

The effects of the Corona virus will pass. It’s social impact will not. Expect a new normal.

A Harbinger of Biological Warfare

Whitfield Diffie co-invented public-key cryptography which is used to protect privacy on the Internet, assure the integrity of digital content and enable fundamental security off and online.  Diffie has received the Marconi Prize, the A.M. Turing Award and the IEEE Richard W. Hamming Medal.

I hope that governments will realize that COVID-19 is a harbinger of biological warfare.  To date, biowarfare has been inhibited by concern for exactly what is happening now: rapid unpredictable spread that might infect the launchers of the disease.  The time for that view is over. The cost of bioengineering is declining.  Groups who feel no responsibility for the welfare of large populations will be able to start experimenting.  There will be a big window of vulnerability during which it will be  easier to develop new pathogens than to develop cures or immunizations.

Society can be less vulnerable if the flows of possible pathogens are measured, analyzed, and controlled.  Airflows need to be changed to make contagion less likely.  For suspected COVID-19 cases, UChicago Medicine is using isolation rooms with special airflow designed to keep germs from getting into other rooms.   This sort of idea is likely possible in public areas.

Protective gear, like masks, needs to be made more effective, more comfortable, more socially acceptable, and cheaper.

Network-connected thermometers predicted the spread of the flu in the US two weeks before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s own surveillance tool did.  Perhaps Nest thermostats may be useful in detecting illness.  What can we infer if many people turn the temperature up or down?

Our rules for vaccine development center on conventional metrics: customer satisfaction and big-pharma profits.  At some point we are going to
decide that something is better than nothing and that taking some risk may often be worth it. 

From National to Global Security?

Martin E. Hellman co-invented public-key cryptography which is used to protect privacy on the Internet, assure the integrity of digital content and enable fundamental security off and online.  Hellman has received the Marconi Prize, the A.M. Turing Award and the IEEE Richard W. Hamming Medal.

Admittedly what follows is a dream, but dreams can come true. The work that won me the 2000 Marconi Award and the 2015 ACM Turing Award was initially seen as foolish by all of my colleagues, and that is true of most ideas that change the world. So here’s my dream.

For years, scientists had warned that it was just a matter of time before another pandemic, comparable to the 1918 flu or even worse, devastated an unprepared world. And then it happened. Commerce ground to a halt, the stock market crashed, and deficit hawks suddenly became big spenders. This wake-up call got the world to look at other warnings that were being ignored.

Suddenly, there was energy for really dealing with climate change and the risk of nuclear war. Genetic engineering, as well as AI and cyber-weapons, got the attention they deserved before they became existential threats.

People came to see that national security had a whole new meaning. It no longer could be bought at the expense of other nations. It only could be cultivated by ensuring the security of all nations, including those we thought of as adversaries. Global cooperation was needed to stop the global pandemic, and it also was needed to solve all those other challenges.

As this new way of thinking gained traction in society, previously inconceivable, positive changes occurred. Just as the last war in the Western hemisphere ended in 2016, the last war in the world ended in 2030. There were still small scale conflicts, but none of them met the definition of war. At the turn of the century in 2100, people wondered why their ancestors had behaved so primitively and self-destructively.

A New Era of Data Gathering and Analysis

Leonard Kleinrock is a pioneer in computer networking and communications creating fundamental mathematical models of packet switching, which is the technology underpinning the Internet.  Kleinrock has been honored with the Marconi Prize, the National Medal of Science, the National Academy of Engineering Charles Stark Draper Prize.

There is an amazing (albeit monstrous) experiment taking place that we would never have run by choice. It is exposing our level of interdependence in a very real way that leaves no one untouched. It is also creating both the opportunity and imperative to gather and analyze vast amounts of global data that we might never have brought together before:

  • Supply chains, to see their importance and the critical flows
  • Education, including online and at home
  • Social interaction and the impacts of losing it
  • Food chains and access as supplies become disrupted and unavailable
  • Economics under these conditions and the enormous impact the pandemic is having
  • An externally forced drop in the markets which is sudden, unanticipated and not economically caused
  • Behavior of citizens under isolated and severe conditions, showing both community and hostility
  • Cooperation, or lack thereof, among governments as we struggle with national versus global interests

We need to be proactive in organizing this data gathering and in the design of experiments to run in today’s unusual situation. The Internet is absolutely a critical part of the data gathering, sharing and analysis. The act and science of this work must be organized by the researchers and data gatherers.

This is the proverbial “attack from outer space” which will hopefully bring all people and governments on this planet together to combat this truly external threat.

Enormous Value From the Network

Tom Leighton is a pioneer in creating the content delivery network services industry which now delivers trillions of content requests over the Internet each day.  He is the recipient of the Marconi Prize, the IEEE Computer Society Charles Babbage Award and is a member of the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

As businesses and consumers around the world adjust their routines amid the various COVID-19 restrictions, the Internet is being used at a scale that the world has never experienced. In addition to millions of people who are now working from home, students all over the world are going online to continue their studies, governments are increasingly leveraging the Internet to communicate with their citizens, vast amounts of commerce have moved online, houses of worship are streaming their services to keep their communities connected, and entertainers are engaging with their audiences online to provide an escape from the isolation many people and families are starting to feel.

It remains to be seen what will happen once we emerge from the pandemic, but it may be that our lifestyle is permanently changed to be much more online than ever before. The shift is already placing enormous traffic burdens on the Internet, and communication technologies will once again need to play a leading role in enabling our future. 

Accurate Measurement: The Key to Assessing and Predicting

Bradford W. Parkinson led the technical design and development of the Global Positioning System, ensuring that the military also consider civilian uses which created entirely new markets.  Parkinson has received the Marconi Prize, the National Academy of Engineering Charles Stark Draper Prize and the IEEE Medal of Honor.

Peter Drucker wrote “If you don’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”

The current COVID-19 situation suffers from a lack of credible measurements.  For example, we do not seem to have accurate statistics on current cases nor know how many people have already had stealth cases that were never reported, which measurements of antibodies could answer.  The early emphasis is on testing only those with deep and critical symptoms, likely  caused by an extreme shortage of testing kits.  Unleashing the biomedical industry to provide such kits has started to radically change this.

Engineers and scientists, including the information theorists among our colleagues, are extremely good at setting up experiments and estimating variables from noisy measurements. I believe that many physicians are dismayed with the state of our ignorance. With the right information, we might be able to answer important questions, such as:

  • Why has the Chinese infection rate plummeted to near zero, if that is true?
  • Why has Italy been so hard hit – is it merely a late response, some aspect of social behavior or another factor?
  • What is the true reinfection rate (R)?

This situation should be fertile ground for the techniques of analyzing big data. But before it can be validly analyzed, it must be accurately measured in order to predict future impacts.  

Connected Medicine In the Age of Pandemics

Arogyaswami Paulraj invented and advanced MIMO wireless technology, which now powers all mobile and WiFi networks.  Paulraj has been recognized with the Marconi Prize, the IEEE Alexander Graham Bell Medal and has been inducted into the United States Patent and Trademark Office Hall of Fame.

While the COVID-19 pandemic will be a major social and economic disruption, the broader impact should abate in two to three years and we should use this crisis to better prepare for the future. 

The current global response to COVID-19 would not have been possible without telecommunications. But we need more innovation in telecommunications to build the medical infrastructure we need to deal with pandemics. 

The possibility of zoonotic infections has been around for millennia, but modern mass transportation and high-density living make them much more pandemic capable. Therefore, society will need tools to better prepare for future pandemics that can arrive more frequently and be even more deadly than COVID-19. Possible ideas include:

  • Internet of Health Things – we need scale population data to help detect and measure pandemic incidence. One example is Kinsa, a smart thermometer that uploads patient temperature to a cloud data base This has already been used in Florida to detect possible COVID-19 hot spots. Many more such tools can be developed, including at-home antibody testing or, in the future, even nucleic acid testing.
  • Individual Infection Potential tracing either from contact with an infected person or perhaps even with infected surface. While rudimentary tools are already available, we can build far better tools with more specificity and geographical – temporal sensitivity.
  • Surge management for hospitals. Severe shortages of hospital resources are a huge problem in pandemics and online data driven management systems for matching patients, supplies or even medical care workers to hospitals best equipped to handle surges can be vital. All this will need high speed and reliable wireless connectivity.
  • Tele-screening. A lot of resources (Personal Protective Equipment and health care worker time) go into testing and screening to identify patients needing hospital care versus those that can recover at home. Good telemedicine-based screening tools can reduce this burden significantly. 

These are just a few examples. Welcome to the Age of Pandemics.

The Imperative to Close the Digital Divide

Robert Tkach’s engineering work vastly increased the transmission speed and capacity of optical fiber systems which underlie our global communications networks.  Tkach has been recognized with the Marconi Prize, the IEEE Alexander Graham Bell Medal and the John Tyndall Award.

Many people are suffering health consequences from the coronavirus, either themselves or within their families. Beyond this, everyone is impacted by disruptions that the measures taken to slow the spread of the virus have had on our work and daily lives. Jobs are at risk and productivity of the country is stalled. We can only hope that measures can be relaxed over time before too much damage is done.

Between video conference and emails exchanged during these days of “sheltering-in-place,” the one thing I can extract from the experience is that the communications industry has done a reasonably good job of enabling “knowledge workers” to work remotely. There have been times when the video froze or the audio dropped – but that happened before the pandemic, as well. The internet and its underpinning technologies have performed well for those of us who spend most of our time in meetings and working on documents. Place-based workers, such as laboratory scientists, healthcare providers and service employees are having a harder time.

In remote education, the pandemic has brought existing inequities to light. While the same technologies used for remote work can be applied for schoolwork, the students and teachers aren’t as familiar with them and while many students have laptops and high-speed internet connections at home, many do not.

Communications technology can only be effective for education if it is ubiquitous and this is why digital inclusion is critical. While we didn’t foresee the pandemic, this effort has become even more obviously important now. The power of communications to make life more resilient needs to be available to everyone.

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