All things pass, including corona. But not before shaping our future and accelerating trends that were already under way. Corona has forced us to undertake unprecedented social experiments – from super surveillance over new working and educational arrangements, to putting our economy on bail-out ventilators. Here is what to expect from post-corona society. Including the role of AI and its related technologies.
A New Capability to Think the Unthinkable
For many of us the end of the world as we know it (TEOTWAWKI) seems more plausible than before. We’ve experienced the taster. TEOTWAWKI might stem from eco-collapse, from nuclear warfare, from biotechnology, from general AI or from one more virus. Whatever the case, we will be less inclined to brush it off. The longer corona fear reigns the more ‘collapsologies’ – both scientific ones and fake ones – will emerge.
There is an upside as well though. As TEOTWAWKI becomes thinkable, so do radical solutions to avoid the worst of it. A quote from Italian Enzo Del Verme (Italy): “We should be very grateful for the virus because it might be the reason we survive as a species…. In the end we will be forced to do what we should have done already in the first place”. It implies creating a saner planet: more collaborative, more united, wiser. During the pandemic we’ve seen life-saving materials like ventilators and face masks going to the highest bidders and not to those who needed them most. It is mocking morality, human empathy and lives. After the financial worldwide crisis one decade ago, we at www.scienceofthetime.com worked with our clients on a trend we named Sane Recession. It is time to discuss an urgently new theme: creating a Sane Post-Corona World.
Whatever this future world will look like and how sane it will turn out to be, one thing looks sure: AI-related technologies will play a decisive role in it. For the good – AI as the powerful savior. Or for the worse – AI as an equally powerful villain. Or will the good and worse meet, maybe in the middle?
Better than the Sewage Systems of the 19th Century: AI Empowered!
Corona, that sinister black swan, helps us to imagine the unthinkable. Hopefully It also creates an openness for radical solutions. That, at least, is what our great-great-grandparents managed to do in the booming industrial cities of their age and century, when they were confronted with their corona: cholera. Let’s hope we can be as brave and broad thinking as them. Which means, that we must think about next-step sewage systems. Here is why:
One of the inconvenient truths to our ‘in-times-of-crises-we-are-one’-rhetoric is that each class follows its own survival tactics. The rich of New York run for the Hamptons. The middle classes can quarantine in their homes with online connections. The lower classes still have to populate infectious subways as the nature of their often precarious jobs don’t allow them to practice from home: cleaners, nannies, hotel staff, contractors and Amazon’s warehouse workers paid by the hour with not much collective bargaining power. (Amazon doesn’t recognize trade unions, significantly decreasing the bargaining power of its worker bees.) Staying safe at home, like the middle class ‘elite’, is a luxury they can’t afford. This goes for New York and even more so for the shadow economy workers of India, Indonesia and Africa with no or a very limited welfare state. Governments there can hardly do better than practicing primitive ‘stay home or be whipped’ policies.
All over the world, we see the same ‘natural’ segregation tactics of rich, poor and middle class. They are understandable, but don’t work. They are way too porous to successfully contain the virus or shield off the well-to-do. One poor person’s infection can affect the health of anyone, even in the richest of society.
A similar sociology existed in the densely crowded industrial cities of the nineteenth century, with Manchester regularly in the front lines. Back then not corona, but cholera. The first 19th century cholera city outbreaks were perceived in a moral light: only lazy, vicious people from society’s underbelly would be infected. Soon this view was discredited as all layers of society turned out to be vulnerable to the outbreaks. Since then the medical vision on infectious diseases has become common place: with bacteria and viruses as the ‘class-neutral’ transmitters of pandemic diseases. The public health movement is one of the biggest life-saving creations of 19th century city life. Since then we are taught to wash our hands. Since then we are taught to breath fresh air. Since then all major cities have built sewage systems. They form the monumental infrastructures, virtually invisible, on which non-contagious living in our cities is based. Monumental and virtually invisible: not unlike the infrastructures that have been built around AI in recent times.
Sane Post-Corona World will need its own next-step 21st century ‘sewage systems’. Not per city but international, as we all have learnt that viruses don’t respect national borders. Of course, I use the term sewage systems metaphorically. What will they look like for our times? Can we live up to the guts and wisdom of our 19th century ancestors? For this we need the collective muscle of creative entrepreneurship, governmental efforts and commitment and the power to imagine unthinkable solutions. Plus something else, unknown to our 19th century ancestors: the immense power of AI-related technologies.
We have something the 19th Century didn’t have: Data and AI
On the most fundamental level the fight against corona can only be won by data, data, data – and making sense out of it. That’s AI. Data though about a new virus is, by definition, scarce to start with. AI can only train its algorithms when data abounds. To predict spreads and outbursts of the virus, mobility tracking systems must generate heaps of data for AI to digest and coming to aid. In order to distribute scarce intensive care beds optimally over populations, in order to assess what kinds of patients with what kinds of symptoms have better chances of full recovery via what kinds of treatments, and in order to determine what aftercare is best for them, AI can be of tremendous help – but not before its algorithms have mined mountains of data. On our way to find a vaccine for the virus its protein structures must be meticulously charted – and visualized in 3D. Only after done so, the best options can be detected on what protein clusters to attack with biggest chances for success. Again, it means ploughing through billions of data points like only AI and machine learning can. In corona-hit countries we see platforms being built in high tempo to organize what kinds of voluntary works are needed where and for whom, what kind of social care and mental health care are needed for what persons where and when. Also here AI plays its blissful role – as a tireless savior that the 19th century sewage system builders could not dispose of.
And yet, in spite of all these regions where AI-related technologies are adapted, we seem to be less awed by its activities and successes. Its role does not really blossom to full maturity -or at least it is poorly communicated. When we read about AI defeating humans at chess, at Go, when we read about AI detecting cancerous body spots in human bodies, regulating traffic streams in smart cities with super efficiency, helping driverless cars striding the roads without accidents, we are awe-struck. When it comes to AI and the fight against corona similar mindboggling miracles don’t seem to occur. AI doesn’t steal the show. And what it does is not prominently disseminated in the world press. Partly this is because AI is still in its data-devouring phase. But also the political tensions between China and the US play their role. The power of AI is not only determined by the amounts of data gathered – China will lead here. It is also dependent on how much of the data gets shared internationally. Though China was quick to share the genetic code of the corona virus with the world, after that it got severely criticized by not doing the same about the origins of the virus. Also the reliability of many statistical data from China are being called into question. After all, argues the West, China is not a free and transparent political system. We all remember 34 years old Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang who warned against corona in its early stages and was silenced as a whistleblower. On the other side, it is all but helpful that president Trump stubbornly mentions corona the China virus. This suggests scapegoating. Trump is the ultimate blame-avoiding president, and as corona causes record damages in the USA, revealing the nation’s dysfunctional health-system as never before, it fits the political-psychologies of the president to shift the blame to China. Trump also accuses the World Health Organization of overlooking Chinas untransparent communication and unreliable statistic figures. Trump’s compulsive blaming around, though doesn’t make an authoritarian state like China automatically the pinnacle of eminent moral politics. Yes, it is true that China sent (sometimes faulty) medical aid to a distressed Europe but mainly to the countries that can be bribed into supporting China foreign politics and Road & Belt initiative – like Italy and Eastern European nations. It’s more soft power politics than humanitarianism – well, maybe we can’t expect more of politics. Together, it doesn’t add up to a fertile atmosphere in which international data is shared harmoniously.
It is difficult to assess in this geopolitical landscape what it true, fake, blame-shifting and propaganda. But it is clear that it is not fertile soil for AI’s image to flourish. It appears that AI, that potential savior of mankind, walks on the leash of politics. Then it is difficult for AI to impress with an image of super potent capacities to save the world. AI’s benign halo is fading.
Geopolitics is bruising AI’s image from the outside. But it is also battered by criticism from its inside, closer to its intrinsic functioning. The fight against corona reveals it.
Double-edged High-tech Monitoring: AI in its core
Yuval Noah Harari, the world’s most cuddled philosopher, recently invites us to imagine that our government in its noble fight against the virus, compels us to wear a device under our skins, monitoring whom we have met, whether we are infected and if yes, warning the people we are about to encounter. This is High Tech AI in action and auspiciously containing the virus. It is happening, somewhat diluted but not too much, in China where WeChat and Alibaba have created health QR codes for the people, each and every one of them. A red code means you are obliged to stay in quarantine. A green code means you are happy to move around. Russia has developed a similar system and combines it with face recognition: when a red coded person leaves the house, the system recognizes, catches & fines. In China WeChat and Alibaba are superiorly fit to go the High-Tech AI monitoring road. WeChat is the first to find out in real time how the Chinese feel and react, via its unprecedented social media data. Alibaba can track in real time, what people buy, when and where and consequently how they move around. In China people pay with their phones So Alipay Knows. “Our saviors in times of corona” one of www.scienceofthetime.com ‘s Chinese correspondents notes.
It is obvious that High Tech AI monitoring can successfully contain contagion. As a consequence, the Chinese tend to embrace it whole-heartedly. (Though there are doubts about the accuracy of the actual health codes. Sometimes the code irregularly jumps from red to green and back without any change in actual behavior.) When it comes to a trade-off between life-saving High Tech AI on the one hand and privacy penetration on the other hand, collective cultures like the Chinese, but also South-Koreans and Taiwanese, show a tendency to trade in privacy. “Data privacy doesn’t always protect you”, summarizes our correspondent the Chinese mentality.
It is not that Western cultures are against High Tech monitoring. Location data tracking via mobile phone to assess how corona is spreading, is common in all European nations. Who appreciates perfect privacy when dead by corona? But Western democratic DNA makes their cultures inclined to revere free speech and privacy protection. In his thought experiment about monitoring devices under each citizen’s skin Harrari points out that next generation devices might measure much more than virus-relate characteristics like temperature and breathing trouble. They might monitor what arouses and angers people, what makes them laugh, what offends them – and this with a ‘hormonal intimacy’ unimaginable before. All the saved data could then be used for broader purposes than fighting a virus, not in the least for political influencing. That’s what the West fears: All god-all-mighty data, AI’s basic ingredient, in the hand of authoritarian leaders. It would be 1984 and Brave New World combined on algorithmic steroids. The fight against a deadly virus by High Tech monitoring, laudable in itself, might get diametrically opposed to the democratic values of the West and its healthy suspicion against boundless surveillance. In Israel Minister Netanyahu recently deployed monitoring high tech as described here – and usually only applicable to battle terrorists – on a broader scale. When parliament refused, fearing civic liberties would be crippled, Netanyahu rammed his surveillance policies through via an emergency decree to fight corona. New outbreaks and new viruses will legitimize the continuous use of monitoring.
There is a tension between High Tech corona-fighting and the quality of freedom and human rights in society. Authoritarian leaders will seize corona fear as a moment to stimulate High Tech super surveillance. Will people bow their heads, even embrace it? Will they perceive it as both benign and evil? Will they protest? Will they search for ways to create High Tech monitoring that protects privacy? These questions will determine what Sane Post-Corona Society looks like in general, and how AI and its related technologies are perceived, embraced and criticized in particular. Don’t expect an harmonious or naïve reception of AI and its ‘glories’ anywhere anymore.
In spite of this, AI probably cannot be stopped to rule the world soon – with an intimate power like no emperor ever before. Corona have speeded this up, as the virus pushes us towards The Turn to Virtual.
The turn to virtual
When our physical environments get scary, life in front of screens will deepen its appeal. We will put more energy and creativity in it. Remote workers at McKinsey can now have a destressing moment at the companies ‘Dog Blog’ where all employees can show off their pets. Not the heart of consulting business but pleasantly bonding nevertheless. Unilever, Germany has created a virtual childcare location where employees in turn can take care of each other’s kids. While TED talks have set up a virtual space for staff members to work next to each other virtually, resembling offline working conditions. One of the most downloaded app in corona times is ‘Houseparty’ (owned by Fortnite developer Epic Games), where you can throw a virtual party replicating the pre-corona real thing. You chat with friends and acquaintances, mingle with new people, watch a movie together or share dating experiences. It’s Zoom meets partying.
One of the biggest social experiments during corona time is remote working. Though this was already common (part-time) practice for a substantial avant-garde, loads of workers now have experiences with it, assessing its advantages – no commuting – and its disadvantages – more exhausting online meetings because nothing can be quickly settled around the office coffee machine. Expect remote working getting both energized and more institutionalized in post-corona times, as we all are experts by experience now. There is a Zoom-revolution going on. New collective knowledge will empower any effort to make remote working as smooth and bespoke as can be. Expect to be invited to virtual end-of-the-week drinks or equally virtual Wednesday evening late dinner parties revolving around the subject of the week.
Also, in education huge social experiments are taken place. Of course, during quarantine, I miss the personal contact moments with my students. And I know many of them appreciate the informal contact possibilities during office hours. But expect that all the new insights we have generated in corona times, will improve post-corona online education’s efficiency and effectiveness – not in the least via enriching ‘human empathy touches’.
So, in remote work and education, so in fitness. During corona times offline fitness has been utterly restricted, so experiments with online fitness practices have, inversely proportional boomed. How appealing these new online practices will continue to appear post corona, remains to be seen. The same will happen in the realms of tele-cooks, tele-yoga instructors, tele-mindfulness trainers, tele-doctors, tele-psychologist, tele-medics, even tele-conscious-breathing coaches.
Analyzing the new learnings, reaping their clues to improve and optimize online experiences and assessing their future growth potential, will be an utterly promising and fertile business. There will be constant data generating, which will make online realms – from health to hospitality, from education to renting clothes – more smooth and swift, more customized and engaging, that means: seductively appealing. You can hear the algorithms zooming while getting more and more sophisticated and sharp, because we feed them more and more data. In the pulsating heart of it all: AI.
Due to the corona-induced Turn to Virtual, AI will validate its march through all industries and societies. It has the sophistication and seductive power, both monetizable, to occupy the throne from which the world is ruled. But with AI’s ascent to the throne reservations and vigilance are risen as well. With regard to its nano-precise surveillance potential. With regard to its threat to democracy in general, to free speech and privacy in particular. With regards to the erosion of human agency. Eastern cultures and Western ones might evaluate these concerns differently, but they are worldwide concerns. The superpowers in the East and West might have the wisdom to collaborate in order to create an AI that will sooth these worries and make it the ultimate force for the international good. Or they might fail to raise above themselves, use AI primarily to compete, even fight each other, creating a split planet starting with the post-globalization Great Decoupling between China and the USA. Which roads are taken will determine the health of our Post-Corona World.
Jamie Bartlett. The People versus Tech. How the internet is killing democracy (and how we save it).
Roger Bootle. The AI Economy. Work, Wealth and Welfare in the Robot Age.
Shoshana Zuboff. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. The Fight for a Humane Future at the New Frontiers of Power.
Jaron Lanier. Who Owns the Future.
Tim Wu. The Attention Merchants.