Why and how global tech could shorten our crisis faster than expected
Desperate times require innovative measures, and technology might be our collective way out of the health and economic crises.
The coronavirus crisis is unlike any other we have seen: it’s not a “deja-vu” it’s a “jamais-vu”, like the French would say. It has both a health and an economic aspect, and it has put the entire world on a stand-still. It is “war time” now, as many country leaders have stated, and what we know is that in times like these, it is the perfect opportunity for technological advancements to come in and save the day. Of course, we need to manage our expectations, but some Asian countries, such as South Korea, China, Japan and Singapore, which have proven to cope well with the crisis have also relied on technology, besides other measures, in order to control and contain virus’ spreading. For instance, Singapore has just made its contact tracing tech freely available to developers and, beyond the privacy concerns, this shows how much room for innovation and international cooperation there is for such matters. But can we take these national practices and implement them in other countries, and is it the right time for innovation also on the economic front? The US remains the global tech leader, and the EU the regulatory one, so they are expected to show leadership in the months to come, at business and political levels.
Even in the developed world, governments’ actions were hardly sufficient. Due to inappropriate measures, or inappropriate implementation, more and more people have been infected, deaths which could have been avoided were not, and the entire crisis got prolonged. Globally, AI has unfortunately been barely used to contain the spread of the coronavirus, and the robots could have come in handy in preventing some hospitals becoming hotspots for infections. The 4IR is still waiting to be deployed against the pandemic at full scale. In the meantime, a lasting lock-down has immense effects on economies, especially in countries which rely on labor-intensive industries, such as manufacturing and agriculture. “Early in, early out” strategy has seemed to work in some places, but in an interconnected world, we need to find solutions (global ones!) for a smart and sustainable exit strategy, rather than postponing it.
Technological innovation can improve both aspects of this crisis: the health part and the economic one.
On the health component, the private sector has already taken initiative and several companies, including Google DeepMind, Alibaba, YITU and Graphen work restlessly to develop Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools to help detect the virus, track its geographical footprint, and even predict changes in its potential protein structure to find a vaccine. Alongside biotech and pharma corporate research, we might witness the creation of a vaccine in record-breaking time, with clinical trials being already underway. In some places, governments have resorted to the use of AI to slow the spread of Covid-19 by tracking people’s mobile phones, reporting confirmed cases and providing citizens with real-time information, but also developing testing kits and alternative medical solutions. For example, Singapore started collecting data in a privacy-friendly (a controversial term, nonetheless) way through an app called TraceTogether, using Bluetooth to determine if the user has come into contact with someone infected by Covid-19. Italy, China, Taiwan and Israel have all introduced their own government-sanctioned tracking technologies to monitor possible lock-down breaches. Even UK is currently considering introducing an app to help NHS cope with the medical crisis. Yes, indeed, these technologies raise fundamental questions regarding mass surveillance, human rights and data collection. But we can work to find a way to make use of them by maximizing their utility and minimizing their risks and costs: there has to be a mid way. The essential aspect, especially for democratic countries, is to ensure that this state of exception, and emergency steps, will not become permanent once the pandemic is contained and, eventually and hopefully over.
On the economic aspect, the 4th Industrial Revolution (IR) was coming anyway, and this black swan crisis provides an opportunity to speed up the process. But this has to be lead in a very humane way, focusing on re-skill-ing people, since massive lay offs will be a drama around the world. The economic recession caused by Covid-19 will determine big unemployment rates, and many citizens will suffer its consequences. Even in “normal times” the 4th IR was going to have human costs in the “normal” creative destruction process that any economic advancement poses. But the “new normal” demands even more care and smart humane leadership. People’s jobs were going to be replaced partly by “robots”, and they would find themselves unemployed — an acute problem posed by digitalisation and considered by governments. How to help these people finding stable sources of income will only be accelerated by the recession and it is, for reasons of human solidarity and institutional stability, the task of governments to intervene. The brainstorming should start now, amid the fast paced health crisis, because when we recover from it economies will be partially crumbling, and then it may be too late.
As the pandemic sweeps across the world, paralyzing many aspects of normal life, governments can concentrate now more on digitalising their economies and e-re-skill-ing, in order to make the transition and help people adapt to a new type of economy. In this narrative, pushing for the 4th IR becomes the solution, rather than the problem and it can be now redefined: from an era of ‘digital disruption’ to an era of ‘digital restoration’. E-development and digital empowered growth vs technological threat to jobs — tech companies have an opportunity to both enable this process and lead by example. This will help people finding new jobs in the “new normal”. Of course, this is a simplistic way of putting things down -the details have to be worked out based on a complete analysis on each country’s sectors, possible ways of making the transition, and possible impact on all people, with all the ethical and technical implications considered. But leaders must adapt and deliver to their societies, policymakers should be encouraged to streamline and fast track regulations that allow certain technologies — to help us overcome unprecedented challenges and make the best out of this desperate situation. There is no better time for leapfrogging!
In order to shorten our crisis, governments’ and companies’ attention must now turn to how will technology be leveraged to virtually convene a global, multi-sectoral and multi-stakeholder dialogue. It will be useless if country X develops its own technology and does not share it with anyone. Competitive advantage in the new normal also has a solidarity and generosity component, amid global impoverishment within this unprecedented crisis. A global pandemic requires collective measures, otherwise the coronavirus will continue its spread, in waves, coming and going, eventually reaching back country X. Why focus your narrative defensively on “imported infections” instead of “exporting solutions”? Here, international institutions such as the UN can really step in as well. Aggressive positioning for competitive advantage is not beneficial anymore and global power competition must be put on hold for at least 2–3 years, until we see the light at the recovery tunnel — we need solidarity and knowledge sharing. As an example, Alibaba’s cloud business unit has offered its AI-powered technologies to provide data insights on the current coronavirus pandemic and speed up diagnosis. US companies have top notch solutions as well and there is room for “coopetition” with Asian counterparts in spite of the quality of political relations between DC and Beijing. Others could follow suit.
If we want to “win the global war” (and not only one national battle at a time) against Covid-19, we need to collectively contribute, build up on others’ research, work together and collaborate. We are witnessing global and national political leadership vacuums, tech can be the informal leader helping fill gaps.
Credit photo: http://www.todaytechjournal.com/2019/12/20