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The human and economic toll of the COVID-19 pandemic is impossible to overstate. Despite such bleakness, however, a few silver linings of positive, lasting changes are emerging.

The accelerating shift to contactless technologies is clearly one of these. Many forms of contactless technology existed before the pandemic. Even before COVID, one could tap their credit card to buy a cup of coffee or unlock one’s smartphone with a glance.

The difference now is in adoption. The pandemic has accelerated and expanded the use of contactless technology in ways that will continue for years to come. Every area of our lives - from payments and food delivery to health care and travel - are being transformed by some form of contactless technology.

And while the initial push has been driven by a desire to “flatten the curve,” the benefits of this technology trend will extend well beyond helping mitigate the risk of COVID-19.

Retail Payments See Early Traction

Payments are the most obvious area of increased adoption for contactless technology. While contactless payments have been catching on globally, the U.S. has lagged…until now.

In 2018, just 3 percent of payment cards in use in the U.S. were contactless, versus around 64 percent in the U.K. and 96 percent in South Korea, according to a study by A.T. Kearney. By April 2020, 51 percent of Americans had adopted some form of contactless payments, such as tap-to-go credit cards and mobile wallets, a Mastercard survey revealed.

Combined with the continued move to online shopping, our retail world is increasingly becoming contact-free. While in-store retail traffic plunged 50 percent year-over-year on the most recent Black Friday, Americans spent a record $10.8 billion online on Cyber Monday 2020, a 15 percent jump over 2019.

This is a seismic shift, not an anomaly, as people expect to remain in a contactless world once the pandemic is behind us. Even when they’re in a store, nearly 90 percent of U.S. shoppers now prefer to shop with touchless or self-checkout features.

Providing Services with Limited Engagements

Payments is only one form of contactless technology that’s catching on. This bigger trend is creating new opportunities for a range of businesses and accelerating demand for emerging technologies, like AI, 5G, robotics and drones.

Consider food delivery service DoorDash, which saw a 110 percent sales jump in the first half of 2020. The company, recognizing the appeal of contactless engagements with its customers, has been testing autonomous vehicles and drones for deliveries.

Health care is becoming more contactless too. SK Telecom and Omron Electronics Korea have developed a 5G-powered autonomous robot that can help disinfect a building and conduct contactless temperature screenings. Telehealth - medical visits by video or phone - increased 154 percent during the initial COVID-19 wave, according to the CDC, which predicted many policy changes enacted for the pandemic could become permanent.

Reducing Contact and Lines in Travel

Travel is adopting contactless too. Airports, where long lines create frustrations and health concerns, are turning to artificial intelligence and contactless technologies to improve the travelling experience. Delta Airlines has introduced a new facial recognition security checkpoint at its hub in Detroit and is set to expand the technology to include bag drop and boarding early next year. Likewise, it is exploring a curb-to-gate facial recognition option that would replace the need to present government-issued IDs across its network.

Across other transportation systems, Near Field Communications technology is enabling an expansion of e-ticketing capabilities that allow users to tap a transit card or smart device to enter a subway turnstile or hop on a bus. New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) recently completed the roll-out of OMNY, a contactless transit payment system that could replace the widely used MetroCard system after 2023.

Creating a Faster, Simpler, More Efficient World

This shift to contactless does not happen by itself. The transition requires major investments in a range of underlying technologies - more advanced processors and memory chips, better image sensors, smarter AI, more robust data centers and faster communications networks to tie it all together.

The payoff, though, will be immense. Going contactless will lead to simpler, faster and more seamless services. It will mean less time shopping for groceries and, hopefully, more quality time with friends and family. It will mean easier access to health care, while slowing the spread of contagious diseases, including the common cold and seasonal flu.

With so much potential for these technologies realized during a crisis, other potential use cases can’t be far behind. It’s safe to say contactless is a trend that is here to stay.

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