The COVID-19 pandemic is the largest health crisis to have happened in a new technological and data driven era – one which can still amaze us with news of wonderful creations we can get our hands on today or that are just around the corner. It also amazes us for all the wrong reasons, with its power to harm us too.
As the world grapples with the pandemic, one thing is clear: our response to it is built on the trends of the digital ecosystem as we know it – surveillance and datafication. Datafication is the process of rendering actual life into a machine-readable format. It is what underpins the so called data-driven society, a process that ignores how data is all but neutral and basing the decisions affecting tomorrow on the data of today without critical thinking risks scaling up bad practices and inequalities.
But as our response built on these trends, it is not surprising that the race to digitally trace has been so widely debated over the last few weeks. Citizens across the world worry that this pandemic is turning into an emergency with no expiry date. And during an emergency, checks and balances are reduced and sacrificed for the sake of speed. It is legitimate for people to worry, and it is actually a positive development as it is testament to an increased awareness of the potential misuse of personal information.
In my book, An Artificial Revolution: On Power, Politics and AI, I argue for the need to fully understand the scale of the challenges surrounding data and our digital ecosystems. Only if we do engage with them properly, we will be able to take care of the digital environment for the benefit of all. This is urgent, as right now the digital ecosystem is dominated by an asymmetry of power, with large corporations and their algorithms holding so much power over us. Algorithms do, see, and govern. And they govern because they rely on the infrastructure that allows them to do so, and in an often totally unaccountable way.
Technosolutionism is a trait of our society, and the general view is that privacy and human rights are simply collateral damage in the ongoing battle for technology advancement. The fact that in this pandemic privacy is pitched against health is a clear example. There is no need for a trade-off between the two, because there is no dilemma that needs to be resolved.
In my book, I argue that privacy is a value, and a collective one. This pandemic has shown us how interconnected and interdependent we all are and how our world needs more responsible harnessing of data, not less. Privacy was pitched against safety after 9/11 and the little regard for the former has led to measures that have eroded our shared freedoms and liberties. And that is because emergencies produce habits, not just temporary solutions.
Over the last decades, technology has improved our life in a dramatic way, and mostly for the better. I wrote An Artificial Revolution: On Power, Politics and AI because I am so passionate about technology; but I want tech to adapt to us, and not us having to adapt to technology. This requires a change of gear as, right now, we are more following the glamour of the latest toy to play with rather than the purpose of what we want to achieve and how we want to live and transform our societies.
Automation and digitalization will progress at rocket speed as this pandemic has prompted a need for resilience, increased productivity, and quicker adaptability. We must recognize that we are at a watershed moment. Artificial Intelligence, for example, has the potential to bring positive innovation but only if we put people and ideas in the driving seat.
In my book, I argue that AI is both a fact and an ideology. A fact, because it is omnipresent in our society and an ideology because it is often covered with the mantle of the saviour that will address all the problems of our world. We must seriously think about what we want these technologies to achieve for us, and how we are going to govern their harms and impact on the world. If we don’t, we will simply be sleepwalking in algorithms replacing policy, in our autonomy trounced by their manipulative power and in computation taking the place of the law.
This is a global challenge, not a national one. And a time of increased nationalism and populism, it is incumbent upon us to forge links and relationships across the world to try and forge those global frameworks and new structures that will allow us to thrive in the AI era.
Views expressed above belong to the author(s).