• An analysis of 150 million media articles revealed how the technology discourse has shifted during COVID.
  • This shift reveals a need to grapple with the immediate health crisis and could mean that other threats and risks have been undiscussed and unexplored.

COVID is changing the world and our technology conversations are changing with it.

As part of work identifying promising technology use cases to combat COVID, The Boston Consulting Group recently used contextual AI to analyze more than 150 million English language media articles from 30 countries published between December 2019 to May 2020. While the research reflects media coverage and not technology development, the analysis still reveals a range of shifting interests. These shifts can give a sense for how the world has refocused itself to tackle the crisis in the short term. The findings also show the crisis could be leaving some key risks or solutions under-discussed or under-explored, potentially creating new vulnerabilities.

Tech talk after COVID

As can be seen in the below figure, only half of the top tech/telco topics pre-COVID remain in the top ten during COVID. This speaks to a fundamental change in core interests and principal concerns.

The 10 most discussed tech topics after COVID-19
Image: World Economic Forum, Boston Consulting Group

The first priority during this pandemic has been the protection of individuals, and rightly so. As a result, topics such as biotech/medtech have gained prominence as researchers seek out new treatments and a potential vaccine. This shift has fueled a new interest in telemedicine as well. This technology was slow in adoption for outpatient care pre-COVID, but has seen enormous growth in the past 6 months, as lockdowns and the virus forced patients and doctors to seek new solutions for care.

The coronavirus has also brought new uncertainties. With this, data analytics has risen 35% from pre-COVID levels, as individuals and companies use emerging data from medical research and emerging habits to forecast everything from the path of the pandemic to potential supply chain disruptions.

Talk regarding delivery drones has increased by 57% in topic share, thanks in part to new uses of drones to deliver much-needed supplies such as groceries and PPE in areas hard to reach after COVID-19 lockdowns.

COVID-19 boosted the number of articles written about 5G, though the context for these conversations has shifted. Articles pre-COVID focused on potential capabilities from a 5G rollout. As the virus spread, however, fear sparked by conspiracy theorists linked 5G technology to misinformation campaigns.

Top COVID tech conversations in India, China, the European Union and the US
Top COVID tech conversations in India, China, the European Union and the US
Image: World Economic Forum, Boston Consulting Group

As part of this research, analysis dug into top discussion topics in 4 of the world’s key regions: India, China, the European Union and the US. Here contextual AI studied more than 2,500 publications between January and May 2020. To be sure, a number of factors determine the types of media coverage that emerges in different regions. Still, this exercise is another window into how technology conversations differed across contexts as countries faced the virus in different ways, leveraging different tools and resources.

Left unsaid or under-discussed

As the pandemic spread, “business as usual” gave way to crisis management. As it did, traditionally-popular tech topics such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, internet of things, blockchain, robotics, and cybersecurity have been discussed less often than usual during the pandemic. In some cases they have fallen off the map entirely.

This trend reflects the need tackle the immediate health needs of the crisis while ignoring the key role that other technologies or risks will play in more long-term solutions.

Blockchain, for instance, will be key for more resilient supply chains and integral to the equitable deployment of the vaccine once it is available.

AI and machine learning have fallen in rank but have shown to be integral to a range of efforts, including helping researchers sort through massive amounts of data quickly to process the real-time information being processed about the disease.

"Looking past the crisis before us can give us a fuller picture of the risks we face and the solutions we can put into place.

Cybersecurity has fallen off the list of top ten tech topics entirely and that fact belies the growing risk that cyber security poses to a range of sectors, including the newly remote workforce. Additionally, the medical field is particularly vulnerable to cyber threats and the past months have seen a 75% increase in ransomware attacks against health professionals (Some attacks have even targeted researchers seeking a cure for COVID.) The World Health Organization reported a five-fold increase in cyberattacks between this year and last.

Looking ahead
The global pandemic is forcing us to re-think the way we work and how we do business. As our attentions focus on the most immediate threats, we must remember to consider the longer term. Looking past just the crisis before us can give us a fuller picture of the risks we face - as well as the opportunities we might not be exploring and the solutions we can put into place.