Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis
Woman and man in social distancing sitting on bench
Licensed from Adobe Stock

Five Surprising Changes To Watch for from COVID-19

Expect to hear much more about robots that can stand in for humans, as a way of enabling social distance

As the COVID-19 panic slowly lifts, media are full of talk about how our culture will change. Some offer their hopes for “remote work and flexibility” (at Forbes). Some offer their fears: “one of the worst things that could happen is for things to return to ‘normal,’” with respect to anti-Asian racism (at Toronto Star). And then some see it as a huge cultural watershed: “The world after the coronavirus pandemic will be a different world. It will never be the same again!” (at Yahoo News)

They could all be right in some part. Here are some changes — maybe surprising, disconcerting changes — to watch for:

● We’ll probably reduce the number of things we touch in public places:

According to Dr. Okeke-Igbokwe, people might start pushing those elevator buttons with their elbow or even an object like a pen instead of their fingers. “The same goes for pushing your pin number at the ATM or making a purchase at a store,” she adds. “Directly touching the keypads with your fingers will be an action of the past.”

Elizabeth Yuko, “13 Everyday Habits That Could (and Should) Change Forever After Coronavirus” at RD.com

Expect to see more use of phones to open, close, and unlock doors in public places to prevent everyone from having to touch the same button or panel. A number of inventor are working on other devices now.

● When we go back to work, we will find that social distancing will be expected for some time, if only to minimize the effect of “second wave” outbreaks. For example,

There are high-tech approaches to maintaining social distancing in the office, but chances are that you’ll see mainly low-tech ones in your first days back. Especially in small- and medium-size companies, you’re likely to see tape on the floor directing traffic flows and marking off social distance. Desks might be spaced farther apart. You may see lots of plexiglass dividers and signage on the walls that will remind you of the very different world we’re living in now.

Mark Sullivan, “What to expect on your first day back in a touch-free, socially distant office” at MSN Money

Later, more high-tech, less obtrusive methods may be used in high-risk work spaces:

Ford Motor Company, for instance, is asking a small number of its manufacturing floor employees to wear wrist wearables that buzz when the wearer gets too close to another worker. Landing AI uses computer vision technology to analyze real-time security camera footage and detect when bodies are too close together. Motorola’s Avigilon subsidiary and San Mateo, California-based Camio are also working on systems that use video analytics to detect social distancing and mask violations in the workplace, as my colleague Jared Newman reports.

Mark Sullivan, “What to expect on your first day back in a touch-free, socially distant office” at MSN MoneyMay 16, 2020

● Expect to hear much more about robots that can stand in for humans, as a way of enabling social distance:

According to the US Department of Labor and Statistics there are over 1.1 million private security guards in the country. All of whom are potential carriers of the Coronavirus. Will many firms to look to robotic security guards after this epidemic? …

Restaurants employ nearly 3 million wait staff throughout the US. Robotic waiters are just around the corner and with the ability for a restaurant to ease customers concerns on health and virus transmission, a robotic waiter could be very appealing and save significant costs for the restaurants.

Coronavirus Speeds Up Robotic Revolution” at Rebellion Research

These schemes generally overlook that fact that most people actually want and are willing to pay for human contact. But some such developments may be necessary to providing a service at all during future epidemics.

On a more dismal note, there are the Spanish police drones flying around, publicly shaming people who violate lockdown orders. And Singapore’s robotic police dogs, enforcing social distance:

If this catches on among bureaucrats, robots may come to be seen quite differently in the near future.

● On that last note, we will need to watch our civil liberties carefully. As a data analyst warns, privacy that we have given up in order to fight the virus may be difficult to take back;

Any infringements of human rights made in an emergency should be necessary and proportionate, and end when the crisis does. Yet there are countless examples of where this has not happened. For instance, expansions of surveillance by law-enforcement agencies under the US Patriot Act, in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, remain in place.

Joshua Blumenstock, “Machine learning can help get COVID-19 aid to those who need it most” at Nature

It’s not a plot; people just get busy with other things and leave emergency measures in place when they may no longer be needed and may eventually become a hazard, if used for an unintended purpose.

● Lastly, on a darker note, an anthropologist warns that we may have to live past an unsettling view of our neighbors and ourselves because many more people found themselves entertaining conspiracy thinking and magical ideas:

The sudden, devastating spread of the coronavirus, which makes every human interaction potentially lethal, has also made people around the world feel helpless and vulnerable. Our normal habits endanger us, and science offers scant protection. For many, the official prophylactic (locking ourselves in our homes) seems a recipe for financial self-destruction. In these circumstances, as anthropologists would predict, people around the world have turned to magic and conspiracy theories.

Hugh Gusterson, “COVID-19 and the Turn to Magical Thinking” at Sapiens

Going forward, we all need a plan to cope with future stress that makes sense and does no harm.

Further reading on post-COVID-19 changes:

Top consumer trends COVID-19 will change long term: Data from 40 countries suggests that, post-COVID, people will continue to stick close to home.

Five ways COVID-19 is changing education for good: Parents, students, and teachers worldwide have been finding ways to use the internet in creative ways they would never have considered before. Recently, a Harvard prof chose to launch an attack on homeschoolers, portraying them as driven by narrow religious concerns. Given how many parents COVID-19 has forced to homeschool, the attack was, at best, poorly timed. But it usefully focused attention on the ways education needs to change in an online world.

Post-COVID, five ways your job could change. This is a good time to be a creative thinker and innovator. Many COVID-driven innovations will likely endure, whether it’s vets doing telehealth, trolls harassing Zoom users, or cybercriminals targeting remote workers, the new opportunities and risks will stay with us.


Five possibly unexpected ways the post-COVID office will change. We’ll all know more about working at home than we ever thought we would.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Five Surprising Changes To Watch for from COVID-19