The classic hockey stick curve—it’s what investors and entrepreneurs desire but what medics despise. In the past week, Italy has seen that kind of curve in its coronavirus case numbers, leaving people and systems overwhelmed. German chancellor Angela Merkel has described coronavirus as Germany’s greatest challenge since World War II.
This pandemic is the biggest “black swan” event we have witnessed in our lives so far. A black swan event is characterized by a very low probability but extremely high impact. The last one was 9/11 in the US, which some still saw coming. But Covid-19 has taken us all by surprise.
Cases and deaths have had a geometric rise, which defeats understanding, because our minds tend to think in terms of linear progression. We’re not programmed to fathom something that multiplies. India hasn’t yet seen the ugly tipping point, and I hope we don’t. This piece is not about hope against hope, but an earnest call for widespread adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) to counter such unpredictable events.
The initial, and by far most successful, application of AI is on the warfront. Thanks to the deployment of drones, unmanned craft, intelligent machines, humanoid robots and the like, the US has managed to drastically cut its casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq compared to the Vietnam and the Gulf wars. AI has not only lowered collateral damage but also radically increased the accuracy of assault.
But AI’s applications can be far greater and more useful in humanitarian and disaster relief, conservation, disease control and waste management, among others. Machines have been shown to outperform humans in terms of labour, memory, intelligence and, in some cases even creativity.
At a time when citizens have been advised to practise social distancing, and we are fearfully confined to our homes, who will run the essentials? Someone will have to weather the storm, or perhaps something? We already have so much power offered by the brute force of machines that it’s up to us to tame it in meaningful ways, and Covid-19 could offer a precise opportunity.
At the time of writing this piece, Summit, the world’s most powerful supercomputer, housed at the US Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, had identified 77 drug compounds that might stop coronavirus from infecting cells, a significant step in vaccine development. We are getting to know more about the spread of disease, hotspots and mortality rates on an almost real-time basis, thanks to affordable computing and communication networks. Can we up the ante further by relinquishing more control to machines?
Winston Churchill famously said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste”, and I think we have a great opportunity at hand. We can make machines take on the more hazardous tasks, while we watch and survive from the sidelines. This is the time for tech startups to leverage the power of general purpose technologies and conceive radical new solutions to address pandemics.
Private Kit: Safe Paths is an app developed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard. With help from Facebook and Uber, it lets you know if you have crossed paths with someone who is infected while protecting privacy. It’s a first step, and like most technologies, it will improve with adoption. OneBreath, a Palo Alto-based medtech startup, has been working on an affordable, reliable ventilator for over a decade now, and should be ready to meet Covid-19.
As geography becomes history, we have become one large family. Our more robust, fast-learning cousins, the machines, must be deployed on the frontlines faster. We are truly at the inflection point towards singularity, and it’s a choice between speed and accuracy. A useful ethos for the times could be from Mark Twain who reminded us, “Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection.”
Pavan Soni is the founder of Inflexion Point, an innovation and strategy consultancy.