Updated: March 20, 2020 11:33:16 am
A small tech company in Canada — BlueDot — was among the first outside China to spot a new epidemic spreading out from Wuhan last December. BlueDot, founded in Canada by a medical scientist of South Asian origin, Kamran Khan, tracks the origin and transmission of infectious diseases around the world.
How did Khan and his colleagues red-flag the virus, at a time when local authorities were cracking down on doctors in Wuhan, warning about the dangers from Covid-19? BlueDot did this by sifting through massive volumes of news reports and blogs by individuals, including health professionals flowing out of China.
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BlueDot’s success was not a fluke; it is really in the nature of its business. As its official website puts it, BlueDot combines “public health and medical expertise with advanced data analytics to build solutions that track, contextualise, and anticipate infectious disease risks”. BlueDot is one of the many technology firms leveraging artificial intelligence for business and policy purposes. Their fortunes are rising as the world scrambles to defeat the coronavirus. Many governments are reaching out to tech companies to cope with the corona crisis. The state government of California has just hired BlueDot to help it deal with the challenge.
In China, the Communist Party roped in big tech companies like Alibaba and Tencent in the battle against the virus. In the US, President Donald Trump has set aside his well-known distaste for Democrat-leaning Silicon Valley to tackle what he now calls a war-like emergency. India, which appears to have surprised the world with its success in containing the virus so far, will need all the science and technology it can get hold of in overcoming the crisis that is bound to escalate by the day.
Across the world, policymakers see a growing role for technology in identification, tracking, and treating the coronavirus. For the small tech startups in related areas, this is a moment to shine. For the large tech companies, this is a huge opportunity to deploy their immense capabilities to resolve the specific problems posed by the spread of the coronavirus. In rising to the occasion, they could fend off a lot of the recent negative criticism of their business practices and demonstrate that their commitment to “doing good” is not just empty rhetoric.
“Doing good” is also a sensible business proposition at this time. As governments desperately seek solutions to the crisis, the tech startups and established companies leverage the moment to scale up many technologies, develop new uses and markets.
In China, as the government moved decisively after the delayed initial response, it turned to the well-established mass surveillance system based on facial recognition technologies, sensing technologies to identify those with fever in public places and data from mobile phone companies to trace the people who might be infected, and limit the spread of the disease.
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China also developed a Health Code that uses data analytics to identify and assess the risk of every individual in a targeted zone based on travel history and time spent in infected places. The individuals are assigned a colour code (red, yellow, or green) which they can access via popular apps to know if they ought to be quarantined or allowed in public.
While the Chinese use of mass surveillance reinforced the Western image of Beijing as an authoritarian state, many Asian democracies like South Korea have also turned to AI tools to contain the spread of the disease. As it copes with the rapid spread of the coronavirus, the US had no option but to use surveillance to contain it.
Unsurprisingly, the big tech companies in the US, based on collecting and monetising massive amounts of data from individuals, have inevitably become partners for Washington. Unlike in China, where the state can commandeer data held by companies, the relationship between the government, corporations and individual citizens in the US is governed by a welter of laws. The conflict between the rights and interests of these three groups has been intense in recent years.
There is mounting pressure now to tweak these laws to manage the corona crisis. The federal government in Washington, for example, is looking to gain access to mobile phone data and other user information with the tech companies to track the spread of the virus. The US is also liberalising the regulations on the access to, and use of, patients’ health records.
Overarching these arguments is a race between the US and China to find new vaccines for the coronavirus and, more broadly, for the mastery of new scientific capabilities — from artificial intelligence to health technologies. The competition, in turn, is promoting a more intensive alliance between science and the state in both the nations.
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The collaboration between science and the state during past crises led to dramatic acceleration of technological capabilities. During the Second World War, science and the state got together to move nuclear physics from the lab to the battle field. The Cold War between America and Russia promoted the development of space technology, microelectronics, communications and computing.
What marks out the current technological race between the US and China is the role of private and non-governmental entities. That might well be the missing link in India’s effort to beat the coronavirus. The current crisis, however, is also an opportunity for Delhi to build on the existing domestic technological capabilities in the areas of artificial intelligence, big data analytics, life sciences, health technology in the private sector.
In India, the state has dominated the development of science and its organisation. That was of great value in the early decades after Independence. Today, what Delhi needs is a stronger private sector in science and greater synergy with it in dealing with challenges like the corona crisis.
This article first appeared in the print edition on March 20, 2020 under the title “A different fight-back”. The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express.
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