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Nicolás Serrano, Professor at Tecnun. School of Engineering of the University of Navarra

The digital response to the health alert

The process of change that was expected to take years in many activities is taking place in a matter of days.

Tue, 24 Mar 2020 12:09:00 +0000 Published in Navarra Newspaper

We have seen the news that the large telecommunications operators have order that users prioritize the use of data. While this is something that could concern us at a time when we depend so critically on digital communications, on the other hand, we are reassured by the fact that it comes from the operators themselves and is not a complaint from users who have seen how the quality of their service has been affected. 

This means that the systems were prepared for the increase in usage that we are all experiencing these days, and which is likely to continue in the coming weeks. 

The massive shift to teleworking and distance Education involves, on the one hand, a change of habits and the way of work of the working world and students. But, on the other hand, it requires the response of digital systems. Fortunately, the evolution of digital technology is at a point where it has been able to respond to these needs, both with the necessary tools and with the transmission capacity of data. 

In most cases, it has not been necessary to acquire new applications, but rather to extend their use to other areas and to all users. No new tools have appeared. What has happened is that those that were already being used in a more concrete way have become the usual tool of work. In addition, the use of applications hosted in the cloud has made this change practically automatic, without the need for the usual procurement process in companies, which in these circumstances could have been more complex. 

The work of the IT services of the organizations has been more in the field of training and resolving doubts than in the purchase and installation of new systems, for which there was not much time either. 

At the University of Navarra we have seen, as in other organizations, how we have changed our way of work and the learning process of professors and students in one weekend. On Tuesday, the digital classes began and hundreds of professors and thousands of students participated with hardly any incidents. Some teachers even commented that more students attended the online classes. Other students said that for some subjects it was better, because they could go back to the points that were not clear because they were recorded. 

The health alert undoubtedly has a major negative impact on economic and labor activity. For some sectors, however, it can mean a boost in the digitization of these, being one of the biggest challenges facing society, saving the emergency status we are going through.  

The process of change that was expected to take years in many activities is taking place in a matter of days. As is often the case with technological change, technology is ahead of its incorporation by individuals and companies. For example, Intel was making microprocessors before anyone saw the need for personal computers. Thus we have now found that a large issue of activities and companies were able to provide new services and operate digitally without having done so until circumstances demanded it. 

The alert will pass, but the challenges of digitalization, automation, robotization and artificial intelligence are going to continue to become increasingly important, even if we don't see them as urgent. And what is important is what is important, despite their urgency. Crises entail transformation processes, and once they have been overcome, they can be empowering if they are addressed and resolved in the right way. 

The digital era is governed by Moore's law, precisely co-founder of Intel, which says that the capabilities of digital technology double every 18 to 24 months. This doubling in value is reminiscent of the legend of the invention of chess, in which the sultan wanted to reward his inventor with whatever he asked for, and the latter asked to fill the chessboard with a grain on the first square. Double in the second: 2, double in the next: 4, and so on. The sultan said to give it to him, but the calculation showed that there was not enough wheat in all the fields. This exponential evolution is the same as what is happening in digital technology. And, since its inception, we are already situated above square 32, in the second part of the chessboard, where the numbers are very high and getting higher every year. 

Now there has been a substantial increase in the use of data and as requested by the operators, we must make a manager use of them prioritizing teleworking and teaching. Although I know that it will be solved, since technical problems are usually solved. Adaptation to the new digital environment is not just a matter of technique, it requires a change in people, organizations and governments. We can take advantage of this experience to be aware of the coming change and act to be the actors and not the ones affected by it.