Saturday, April 11, 2020

The Likely Nasty Social, Economic and Surveillance Aftereffects of COVID-19 -- and How to Combat Them

A lot of attention right now is going into the question of flattening the curve of global COVID-19 infection -- and this is exactly right.   I've been trying to do my own part here, via organizing the COVIDathon blockchain-AI-against-COVID-19 hackathon, and working with  my SingularityNET colleagues on using some of our AI code for simulating COVID-19 spread and analyzing related biology.

It's also important, though, to think about the other side of the curve -- what happens once the virus starts to gradually recede into the background, and life resumes some variation of "normal."    How will things be different after COVID-19?  Which of the unusual things happening now in the midst of the pandemic are likely to continue to have impact in the post-pandemic world?

TL;DR it seems the answer is: Barring something unusual and countervailing happening, the impact of the pandemic will be the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer, and Big Tech and Big Government getting more access to diverse personal data and more skill at mining it effectively.

Potentially these effects could be palliated by rolling out decentralized blockchain-based technologies for managing aspects of the pandemic and the pandemic-era economy.   But it appears likely that, even if we succeed in getting a few such technologies built and adopted rapidly via COVIDathon and other efforts, by and large it will be centralized technologies, centralized government agencies and companies and the traditionally financialized economy that will dominate COVID-19 response.

A more open question is whether, when the next pandemic or other global crisis rolls around, decentralized tech will be ready to play a major role.   Can COVID-19 and its impacts on society, economy and industry serve as a wake-up call regarding the risks global crises pose on multiple fronts including data sovereignty and economic fairness?   Will this wake-up call be loud enough to rouse a large open-source development community into action regarding the creation of decentralized, secure and democratically controlled technologies for doing things like, say, managing uploaded personal medical data ... tracking and predicting spread of epidemics ... carrying out precision medicine analytics on clinical trials
 ...  and assessing lifestyle choices in the light of current medical realities and practicalities like weather and transportation?

Let's run through the probable future in more detail.   Social distancing and travel restrictions are most likely to cause the virus's spread to slow as 2020 progresses; and then before too long effective antiviral compounds or cocktails will be available.   Sometime in 2021, most likely, COVID-19 vaccines will hit the market; and then this virus currently wreaking so much havoc will be relegated to a status much like that of the lowly flu.

In the meantime, though lots of low-wage service workers are getting laid off ... and many will not get re-hired, as many businesses will choose to rebuild in other ways after the pandemic fades (automation, anyone?).  For instance, many of the people who are now ordering groceries for home delivery for the first time, will continue doing this a lot after COVID-19 is gone.   Resulting in fewer jobs for supermarket cashiers and other staff.   The same sort

At the same time, savvy investment funds are right now buying up every valuable asset they can at bargain prices -- so that after the pandemic fades they will own an even larger percentage of the planet

And the techlash is already fading into the dim recesses of history along with net neutrality -- as everyone grows increasingly attached to Amazon, Netflix, Google etc. while trapped in their homes using the Internet for everything.  

Big Tech has been underhandedly striving to gather as much medical data as possible, for years now -- e.g. Google Deep Mind's series of sweetheart deals with the British health system to garner access to peoples' medical records; or Project Nightingale which saw Google quietly capture 50 million Americans medical records.  Gathering medical data from a wide population with a view toward pandemic-related analysis and prediction is absolute golden for Big Tech.   This data and the pipelines that bring it their way will continue to yield value for these companies and their government partners long after COVID-19 has been reduced to the level of one more irritating seasonal infection.

As everyone becomes increasingly fearful for the lives of their elderly friends and relations, centralized monitoring of everybody's location and movements and physiological data is increasingly taken as a Good Thing.   Today uploaded temperature readings from a million+ wireless digital thermometers are letting us track the spread of COVID-19 around the US.    Stanford researchers have also shown that, by using AI anomaly detection on data from heart-rate variability, body temperature and pulse oximetry , one can identify a person is sick even before they show any symptoms. 

But then what happens when it becomes standard for your smartwatch, smartphone and fitness tracker to upload your data to Big Tech and Big Government so they can track and analyze disease spread?   Do you really trust these corporate and governmental entities not to use this data for other purposes -- and not to find ways to quietly keep collecting and utilizing similar data?   Edward Snowden has recently gone on record that, no, he does not.  As you may have guessed,  I don't either.

Yet the UK is already going directly down this path, with a governmental software app that detects and tracks nearby COVID-19 sufferers.  Completely harmless, extremely helpful -- until the same tech and organizational set up is used to track other things of interest to the ruling politicos and their business and military allies.

Big Brother is watching your heart rate, your temperature and your blood oxygen level -- better be sure your heart doesn't pound too much when you walk past that political demonstration, or your credit rating's going way down!!

Global monitoring of human movement and human physiology can do wonders for optimizing global health, during a pandemic and otherwise -- but it should be done with decentralized, secure tools.   Otherwise one is placing great trust in the entities that are gathering and utilizing this data -- not only to do helpful things with it in the pandemic, but not to leverage this data and related data-gathering capabilities later in the interest of goals different from that of global human benefit.

At the moment most decentralized networks and associated software tools are still in fairly early states of development -- so to combat COVID-19 fast we are understandably relying on centralized methods.   But this will not be the last pandemic nor the last acute, unprecedented global crisis that humanity faces.   It is important work so that for the next such situation that arises, decentralized frameworks will be fully prepared to play a leading role in helping humanity cope.

Otherwise, each successive crisis will serve to concentrate more and more wealth and power in the hands of a small elite -- which is not at all the best way to create a beneficial future for humanity and its technological children.




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