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Sunday, Apr 18, 2021

Coronavirus pandemic is pointing to how technology will transform the future – and some of its drawbacks

Big data and artificial intelligence have been deployed to help contain the virus and hunt for a vaccine. But concerns persist over the threat to privacy and tech’s promotion of misinformation

The world faces a paradigm-shaking set of economic, political, environmental and social issues. They include rising populations, the environment and failing post-World War II metrics and economic models; what each of these factors share is that technology offers both solutions and challenges.

As we focus on Covid-19’s health and economic hurdles, the environment and social changes loom in the background. What can we expect from technology?

Big data allows governments to track people in unprecedented ways and provides raw information, which can be used to find commonalities, trends and genetic markers to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and help develop vaccines.

5G speeds up information sharing, facial recognition, contact tracing, distance learning, GPS and social media, for example, allowing artificial intelligence experts to create real-time models that drive more accurate and targeted decision-making.

It took around five months to decode the severe acute respiratory syndrome genome; Covid-19’s was decoded in a month. AI is already speeding the process of finding a vaccine by going through the various antiviral combinations and selecting high probabilities that can be pursued in the lab.

The internet itself has evolved and allows access to the most up-to-date and accurate information on prevention, infections and deaths.

On the other hand, technology has also enabled the spread of false and misleading information. In some instances, the media and the internet are being used to push political or economic agendas, or deflect blame for incompetence.

The same technology that can be used to fight the virus could also be used to weaponise it. The same combination of big data, 5G and AI – crucial in controlling the spread of Covid-19 – is also a challenge to people’s privacy.

Covid-19 is seen as the straw that broke the camel’s back, which brought the world to the doorstep of a recession. What people often overlook is the role technology has been playing in our economy. Beyond unicorns and tech titans, technology has changed, and will continue to change, the way we work, live and govern ourselves.

So far, technological changes have largely affected factory jobs but, in the future, its impact will be felt in logistics and services like law, banking and accounting. This will lead to a massive dislocation of existing labour and economic, political and social change.

Economically, people will need to be shifted into fields where they can be productive and there is enough demand, such as design and other creative fields where technology cannot currently replace human beings.

Politically, people will expect and receive more information, but not all of it will be accurate, as we have experienced. For example, jobs lost to automation are often blamed on other countries.

Socially, we are interacting with each other increasingly online; remote working, meetings and learning are experiencing a massive boom, which may subside slightly, but will not disappear due to economic efficiencies.

On the positive side, on the economic front, technology – especially AI, big data and 5G – will transform the efficiencies of commercial processes. Smart contracts will replace legions of lawyers, and taxation at the point of transaction will replace armies of accountants and book-keepers.

Agricultural yields will rise due to drones employing GPS navigation and directed by AI to minimise water and fertiliser use. Productivity gains can be directed into more leisure time and activities. Even fewer people will be employed in the fields.

Politically, real-time information will be available. With less time spent assembling reports, and tracking and guarding data, fewer bureaucrats will be needed. More time can be spent planning the successes of the future, rather than making excuses for the failures of the past. Governments can be held more accountable, as the need for guesswork is reduced.

Socially, assuming that resources are put into education and training people for the future economy, there will be shorter weeks and more leisure time. Hopefully, with fewer resources devoted to providing subsistence necessities, economic disparity will decline. In essence, advances in technology will enable socialist goals.

To ensure that technology better serves mankind, greater compatibility, international standardisation, efficiency in information and communication technology value chains, and international cooperation and teamwork should be promoted and encouraged, rather than disrupted and sabotaged.

A case in point in the fight against Covid-19 is that different standards of protective masks by different countries and regions have hindered the efficiency of the fight against the virus and put more lives at risk. Divided technologies in general, and in information and communication technology in particular, will make the world of tomorrow more dangerous.

In the future, technology companies should be treated fairly and freed up to innovate. Politicising any technology company – be it Apple, Ericsson, Huawei, Nokia, Samsung or ZTE – without due process not only undermines the rule of law itself, but inflicts harm on consumers and mankind as a whole.

Technology is like a surgeon’s scalpel: when wielded by a trained practitioner, it can save lives, but used irresponsibly, it can do the opposite. The experience of the Covid-19 pandemic should remind us that whether the future is a “brave new world” or a better new world will be up to us, not technology.


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