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Covid-19 and the Question Concerning Technology

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from the magazine

Covid-19 and the Question Concerning Technology

How the crisis will change our views on innovation, privacy—and nature. Spring 2020
Covid-19
Technology and Innovation

The main question posed by the coronavirus pandemic may well turn out to be the one concerning technology. The responses adopted by governments around the world seem to fall into two main categories. Those countries able to leverage new and emerging technologies to fight the virus have done better in limiting the number of cases and fatalities, while managing to keep most of their economies and societies operational. The countries unable to use technology had to rely on lockdowns, quarantines, generalized closures, and other physical restrictions—the same methods used to fight the Spanish flu more than a century ago and, in many cases, with the same slow, painful results. In Singapore and South Korea, individuals are digitally monitored, but life is almost normal. In Spain, they are not monitored—but they cannot leave home. The Spanish situation seems almost medieval.

The question becomes more interesting and more complicated after one realizes that the—allow me the term—Luddite group is predominantly located in Western Europe and North America. The virus outbreak has brought to the surface a fact that many of us have long suspected: the backlash against technology in the West has become the main threat to its security and prosperity, just as other regions are embracing technological progress.

Take the case of South Korea—by all accounts, an early success in fighting Covid-19. The country suffered a very large initial outbreak, with roughly the same numbers that have since proved impossible to contain elsewhere. Instead of locking down entire cities, as China had done just days earlier, South Korea relied on new technology. First, widespread testing; then, tracing. If an individual tests positive, his or her contacts are swiftly located and offered tests themselves. This is achieved less through the sleuth work that one might see in a detective movie than through digital tools. The infected person’s movements over the preceding two weeks are determined through credit-card use, security-camera footage, and mobile-phone tracking. People get text-message alerts when a new infection emerges in the areas where they live or work.

To take a second case: as of March 28, Singapore had 802 cases and three deaths. For about 40 percent of those people, the first indication that they could be infected was a text message from the health ministry, telling them that they needed to be tested and isolated.

In the near future, powerful algorithms will be able to monitor news outlets, social media, and official health-care reports in different languages around the world, flagging potential outbreaks and modeling their path of transmission. Predictive tools can draw on air-travel and credit-card data. In the United States, data-analytics companies have been developing artificial intelligence that scans posts on sites like Facebook and Twitter and cross-references them with descriptions of diseases taken from scientific sources. Unfortunately, these technologies have remained the target of public ire, accused of violating privacy and placing critical policy decisions beyond democratic scrutiny. The use of predictive algorithms is mostly limited to counterterrorism and law enforcement, where companies such as Palantir operate more or less covertly.

Speed is of the essence. By developing quick monitoring tools, it might be possible to detect individual cases before much secondary transmission takes place. To be sure, such measures raise obvious privacy concerns. In South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan, some thought has been given to the advantages and risks of digital surveillance. In much of Europe and even the United States, those privacy concerns—prevalent in mainstream opinion and often translated into stringent regulations—may have rendered the measures unworkable.

In China, the initial response may have relied on massive physical restrictions, but as the outbreak subsided, a marked shift to digital surveillance took place. An Alibaba app assigns each user one of three colors—green, yellow, or red—based on location, basic health information, and travel history. Green allows freedom of movement, while yellow and red determine a number of restrictions or the need to enter a supervised quarantine facility. Visiting a restaurant or buying a train ticket is impossible without showing a green health code.

Many of the new innovations, of course, offer new ways to enforce social and political control. The Chinese giant technology Baidu recently released the industry’s first open-source model to detect whether individuals in crowded areas are wearing face masks. The model boasts a classification accuracy of 97.27 percent. Note the irony: as face masks risk rendering facial recognition useless, the technology has been redeployed to determine whether people are wearing masks. Drones survey the streets looking for those not wearing them, and even providing local authorities with multiperson temperature monitoring that can quickly detect people suspected of having a fever, one of the main symptoms of Covid-19.

If you think that the measures being tested in China grant too much power to public authorities, different ideas can be found elsewhere. The uses of technology are, by definition, plural and creative. In Singapore, for example, the government has launched a new app for contact-tracing that both increases its effectiveness and keeps each individual in charge. The app works by exchanging Bluetooth signals between phones to detect other participating users in close proximity. Records of such encounters are stored on each user’s phone. If a user is interviewed by the medical authorities as part of the contact-tracing efforts, he can consent to share his data. The app does not collect or use location data and does not access a user’s phone contact list or address book. Importantly, no data are uploaded to a government server.

While allowing us to fight the epidemic on a much more granular level, technology is also being used to stabilize the levels of social and economic activity. A shift to digital, remote technology helps eliminate contagion risk.

Chinese cities are already reflecting the new reality. Delivery robots in hotels, a curiosity before the virus, are taken seriously now. New business ideas suddenly look urgent: telecommuting and telemedicine, collective virtual platforms where people can share cultural and entertainment experiences, and the biggest winner—online education.

Even before the pandemic, the benefits of working remotely were apparent, as were the forces pushing us to concentrate greater economic power in a limited number of Internet platforms. Those trends will likely accelerate now. In America, they could risk bringing about a split between a physical landscape ravaged by economic distress and a virtual economy, organized remotely and relocated to the cloud, where human creativity would rule unabated.

Jiang Hui, a top executive at the Chinese company Shuwei Media Technology, described the process as the “digitization of people.” He had in mind the control of community outbreaks with the help of Big Data and the use of a wristband tracking the movements of people under quarantine, but the concept can be used more widely. “What we are doing essentially is to digitize people and provide services based on the labels, location, and other information that we attach to people,” he explained. Both processes can be understood in the same way. On the one hand, human beings get reinterpreted as infection points in a global system where flows are continuously tracked. On the other, workers in the new economy become digital subjects; only as such can they be protected from a dangerous environment.

The European Union has already made some veiled suggestions that its strategy for data and artificial intelligence might now need revision. For the time being, the focus is on removing some of the most stringent provisions mandating that European algorithms be trained on European data. Officials in Brussels realize that they may need to have access to global data if they want to develop efficient treatments and vaccines. In time, we may expect a similar rethinking of data privacy rules and principles.

If we come out of this crisis with a single widely shared belief, if some previously ignored idea could become a new consensus, it will likely be a recognition that the history of technology is far from concluded. There is no way to stop technological progress, even if, by hypothesis, one were happy with the current plateau. The coronavirus proved that our natural environment continues to be as dangerous and hostile to human life as it has always been.

Of course, the ongoing public debate about climate change pointed to the same conclusion, but with a critical difference: climate change seemed to show that human activity was the problem, or that technology was the problem. The coronavirus turns this intuition on its head. Far from believing that our natural environment needs to be liberated from human interference, we are now much more likely to think that it needs to be colonized anew. Nature is once again the problem. The present moment feels like a beginning, almost as if humanity is once again discovering the Neolithic.

Photo: Jānis Āboliņš/iStock

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