Coronavirus Is Bringing Back the Forgotten Tech Trends of 2012
MOOCs, 3D printers, and smart thermometers are having another moment
Eight years ago this month, Udacity CEO Sebastian Thrun brashly prophesied that education as we know it would be upended by massive, open, online courses, or MOOCs. That same month — March 2012 — a startup called Kinsa invented a “smart thermometer” that would tap “big data” to track health trends. In September, the Brooklyn startup MakerBot unveiled a new, home 3D printer that a Wired cover story said “will change the world.” In the skies high above Kentucky, Google X was secretly testing giant balloons to beam internet service to rural areas.
Over the years, these stratospheric hopes have been punctured. With few students successfully completing courses, Thrun declared MOOCs “dead” in 2017, and Udacity pivoted to paid vocational training. Kinsa has survived, but its dreams of revolutionizing personal health have gone unrealized amid a backlash to big data and internet-connected gadgets. MakerBot sold to additive manufacturing firm Stratasys, which soon abandoned the notion of putting a 3D printer in every home. Google spun off the balloons into a small Alphabet subsidiary, Loon, whose business has yet to take flight.
Ideas that had been dismissed are getting another look — this time, not out of rose-tinted optimism but something more like desperation.
Then came a global pandemic, disrupting society more suddenly than any startup could. Suddenly, big ideas that had been dismissed as overhyped or unworkable are getting another look — this time, not out of rose-tinted optimism but something more like desperation. Even as it sidelines large swaths of the economy and puts millions out of work, Covid-19 seems to be reinvigorating a technology sector that had been dulled by monopolistic consolidation and deflated by disillusionment with its promise of “making the world a better place.”
MOOCs may still be dead, but with campuses closed due to Covid-19, online education has been thrust abruptly into the leading role that Thrun once envisioned. Teachers and professors across the country are scrambling to put their classes online, much as colleges in 2012 tripped over each other to partner with Coursera, the Udacity rival that promised to make an Ivy League education accessible to all.
The brief, disappointing history of virtual classrooms would suggest that many educators will be clamoring to return to their classrooms and lecterns as soon as the virus recedes. Already, the crisis is highlighting inequalities in students’ access to online experiences and materials. Still, being forced to learn online teaching will imbue teachers around the world with a new skill set they might draw on in the future. In some cases, it may not be a choice: As with remote work, there is a risk that remote instruction emerges as a cost-cutting option for schools that are strapped for money or space. It might also become more firmly ensconced as a fallback option for snow days, temporary building closures, or future outbreaks.
Who will capitalize is not yet clear. Coursera is making its higher-ed platform available for free to universities around the world while enrollment surges in classes on the science of well-being, English as a second language, and the coronavirus itself. Schools are signing up for Zoom accounts. But the real winners might be the big textbook publishers, such as Pearson, which were already pushing coursework online and now have the demand to justify their supply.
Tech that tries to harness big data to predict outbreaks is also having a moment. Kinsa, the smart thermometer company, had been selling its data on customers’ location and temperature readings to help commercial clients such as Clorox target their ad spending. It was revenue, but it was hardly a revolution. And while Kinsa said it was careful to anonymize the data, privacy advocates worried about the widespread collection of such sensitive information.
Suddenly, that data has value to people far beyond the bleach business. Kinsa has launched a nationwide “health weather map” that shows where fevers are spiking, likely in advance of testing data that would confirm a coronavirus hotspot. Even the popular Twitter account Internet of Shit, dedicated to parodying silly “smart” gadgets, broke character to acknowledge it as an example of “connected stuff actually… maybe… helping.”
Kinsa is just one example. To flash back to 2012: That was the last year that Google Flu Trends, a tool for predicting the severity of the flu season based on search queries, was taken seriously by the public health world. Wired declared it an “epic failure” after it grossly overestimated both the 2012–13 flu season and the one that followed. Fast forward to 2020, however, and Google is being enlisted as a prominent part of President Donald Trump’s coronavirus plan as it races to stand up websites to connect people with Covid-19 tests and public health resources.
At the same time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is partnering with Microsoft to build a Coronavirus Self-Checker Bot that asks people questions about their symptoms and dispenses advice ranging from “stay home and take care of yourself” to “call 911.” This at a time when chatbots — once a hot tech trend — had seemed to be falling out of favor. Not to be left out, Apple has built a Covid-19 app in partnership with the CDC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
A ubiquitous marketing buzzword in 2012 was “SoLoMo,” short for social, local, and mobile. The idea was to harness data from people’s smartphones about their location and social networks to target them with ads. Amid growing public concern about online privacy, the companies that sprang up to traffic in such data ducked out of the spotlight, but they never stopped collecting it.
Now they’re creeping out of the woodwork to recast their secretive surveillance as a public good. A company called Unacast unveiled a “social distancing scorecard” based on its database of cellphone GPS data. Another one called Tectonix GEO tweeted a visualization of how New Yorkers have fanned out across the country since the outbreak there, potentially exacerbating its spread.
Before the coronavirus, scandals over such data had given Congress an impetus to develop tougher federal privacy regulations. Now privacy concerns are being cast aside in the name of containing the pandemic. That’s understandable in the short term: Surveillance has reportedly been a key measure in some countries’ relatively successful responses. The worry is that, like the threat of terrorism after 9/11, the United States and other countries will use the emergency as an excuse to undermine civil liberties.
The word on 3D printing circa 2012 was that it could spark a “third industrial revolution.” Manufacturing would no longer need to be centralized in factories, futurists proclaimed, when people could simply print the things they needed in their own homes. Yet in the seven-plus years since MakerBot cofounder Bre Pettis made the cover of Wired, 3D printing has turned out to be good for mostly the same things it was good for at the time: rapid desktop prototyping of design ideas and smaller-scale manufacturing without the need to build a conventional assembly line.
A critical shortage of personal protective supplies, from masks to face shields to hospital ventilators, has highlighted another essential role for the technology: as a life-saving stopgap when demand temporarily outstrips conventional production capacity. A Czech 3D printing maker uploaded a design that lets anyone with a 3D printer make their own face shields. An Ohio company is putting its machines to work cranking out 100,000 nasal swabs. Stratasys, the company that bought MakerBot in 2014, has launched a Covid-19 response website and is co-sponsoring an innovation challenge by Massachusetts General Hospital to design printable ventilators. On a more personal scale, even desktop hobbyists can print things like hands-free door openers to help with social distancing.
None of this gets us any closer to a radical reinvention of manufacturing. But it reinforces the value of distributed manufacturing and reminds us that home 3D printers can be more than just a toy.
And as for Loon, the internet balloon project from Google’s parent company Alphabet? After eight years of development, it had yet to gain final approval for commercial testing anywhere in the world — until this month. Citing the need for better communications infrastructure to fight coronavirus, the Kenyan government fast-tracked Loon’s approval. Given the several other countries that had been in a wait-and-see holding pattern, that could mark the shift in the wind that gets the entire project off the ground. That is, assuming it proves its worth.
These inventions sprang not from necessity, but from the exuberance of a time and place where anything seemed possible. With the exception of Loon, which was always billed as a moonshot, they did not seek to address clear or urgent societal needs but to create and fill new ones. At this, they largely failed.
But the thing about solutions in search of a problem is that, sometimes, they eventually find it. “Kinsa was founded with this exact mission — to help stop the spread of illness through early detection and early response,” company spokesperson Nita Nehru told OneZero in an email. “We are proud to be putting that mission into action.”
That doesn’t mean that smart thermometers, online education, home 3D printers, or internet balloons will ever reach the heights that their creators, or the digital “evangelists” of 2012, envisioned. To forget the reasons they faltered would be a mistake. In particular, we shouldn’t allow a temporary crisis to permanently erode our personal privacy via ubiquitous digital surveillance or our health and location.
Still, at a time when so much isn’t working, it’s nice to see that a few things that never really worked before, finally — sort of — do. Even if we can’t wait to move on from them again.