“Edge computing” has been heralded as a way to increase access to real-time information and to analyze that information more efficiently. But in this moment of public health crisis, we should recognize a potentially significant opportunity that these technologies offer beyond efficiency: the ability of edge computing to weather massive disruption.
To see why, it’s worth remembering what edge computing involves. These technologies move computer workloads to “the edge” of networks, shifting the collection, processing, and storage of data from central locations (like servers or the cloud) to individual devices such as cell phones.
This is significant because of the massive increase of computing power seen in devices that live away from the center of networks. In 1965, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore famously observed that computer processing doubles every two years, while the cost of that processing power halves in the same time period. The effects of Moore’s Law mean our smartphones now have more processing capability than NASA’s computers when they sent a man to the Moon. This, combined with the associated proliferation of data, enables our devices to get “smarter,” as well as to make select information available to more centralized applications (such as Uber or Instacart) in a more efficient way.
Edge computing during COVID-19
What does this mean for emergency situations like the current pandemic? In times of crisis, the systems on which we depend are closely examined. Dangers test our preparedness, our ability to improvise and our capacity to act and think locally. Globalization through technology over the past few decades has led to an unprecedented level of interconnectivity, but with it has come a vast and complex chain of dependencies. The locus of control is unclear, and often too far from where the crisis occurs. A shock to the system puts pressure on the supply chain and reveals just how extensive and interwoven these dependencies are. Hidden vulnerabilities are revealed and there is no timely way to respond effectively.
The spread of COVID-19 epitomizes this kind of shock. While the virus continues to multiply in waves around the world, the effects are being felt across industries. Consumer-facing businesses like restaurants shut down, leading to millions losing jobs; the effects are rippling through the financial and real estate sectors and beyond. A majority of the workers still employed are forced to work from home, many with children whose schools are also shut down, putting stress on telecom networks and delivery services.
Chains of dependencies in our economic, financial, and technological systems were undermined long before the pandemic had spread globally. Things quickly spiraled out of control as everyone scrambled to understand the effects at both the micro and macro levels.
To deal with a crisis you need information, tools to analyze that information in real-time, and autonomy to act quickly as well as proactively. Edge computing strengthens the local nodes of a global network by providing them with better quality information at higher speeds, in addition to more independence in the decision-making that affects their own ecosystem.
Imagine if every town in every country had access to environmental sensors and location data that, combined with diagnostic data gleaned from other regions, could pinpoint where the next cases had a high probability of community spread. With up-to-date information and reliable communication of likely next steps and best practices, our businesses, families, and essential services would be able better to adapt and offset stress on our entire infrastructure.
As a complement to the cloud, edge computing provides improved strength and security in local networks around the world. These local infrastructures can relieve the pressure on – and provide more visibility into – the existing complex dependencies, and in turn make the wider system more dynamic, flexible and resilient. In a world utilizing edge computing, crisis response can be quicker, more informed, and, hopefully, more effective.
Five years ago, I argued the applications of this tech would prepare us not just for a crisis, but for a more connected world, too. A system like this relies on “the participation of everyone, of all races, in all corners of the world, for the most optimal and efficient global network. It is not only about the algorithm, it’s about what the algorithm collectively allows us, and our hearts and minds, to do.” While many people have discussed the way forward as a tradeoff between efficiency and resiliency, I believe we do not have to choose thanks to new technologies.
This article was originally published on Coindesk on April 10, 2020.