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COVID-19: Six ways digital innovation and technology are aiding the fight

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In the battle to combat COVID-19, many forms of technology are critical to preventing people from becoming patients and for patient survival. But, it is the ability to apply existing technologies in effective ways as well as the innovative use of disruptive technology solutions that will assure our success.

Much coverage has been given to the shortage of ventilators, which use technology that forces air into the lungs in concert with human breathing patterns. This requires an expensive complex pump-like machine with sensors and electro-mechanical devices controlled by microprocessors. Ventilator shortages have driven innovation that harnesses digital technology capabilities.

Digital technology refers primarily to computing technology that uses a ‘Von Neumann’ machine architecture of separate processors, programs and data to create a programmable information machine. The modular separation of data, programs and hardware, in layers using common standards, enables rapid changes (reprogramming) to be made to change the technology outcome. This is different to integral machine structures such as vehicles/engines, whose functions cannot easily be altered without changing the whole design.

Massive innovation opportunities are possible when digital microprocessors are used to control traditional mechanical and electrical technology. For example, engineers at Oxford have been able to replace the mass of ventilator electro-mechanical components with a single microprocessor-controlled programmable valve. This reduces parts, can easily be adjusted and is faster and cheaper to produce. Whilst not as sophisticated as a traditional ventilator, it can reduce the demand for complex ventilators, freeing them for more critical patients.

Here are some other examples of digital innovation and technology aiding the fight against COVID-19:

<>2. Internet of Things (IOT) <>3. Artificial Intelligence <>4. Virtual Reality <>5. Robotics <>6. Drones <>The future

We are at the cusp of a remarkable future where cheap microprocessor information technology meets traditional engineering, enabling sensing, control and complete automation of many real world tasks. The ease of innovating and support for invention offered by the reprogrammable architecture of digital technology, backed by human imagination, increases the potential solution of many existing and new problems. The ability to automate routine and risky tasks and perform both mental and now physical work at a distance can be a real life-saver. It is this rapid ability to adjust the type of information processed, and with transducers, convert the output into physical motion, force or other effect on the environment, that offers so many possibilities to change and improve our world.

Whilst often billed as having a negative impact on jobs, it is perhaps ironic that with our global health crisis, such innovation-enabling technology empowers us to leverage human ingenuity to save humanity from itself, and preserve humans and their economies, if we can manage to use it wisely, and wisely manage it.

Published 11 May 2020
Leading insights