Friday, April 24, 2020

Day 35: Corona and The Return of the Miracle Healer

This article is part of The 100 Days Offensive. Got to Day 34 or Day 36.

Problems without a solution can be dangerous. The Corona virus pandemic is an example for such a problem. We have approaches for a mitigation (keeping your distance, home office, etc) but no solution (e.g. vaccine or effective medication). So problems without solution are bad. But strangely solutions without problems may also be a problem.

People are frightened at the moment. Not just for their health but for their economic and financial future as well. This is not restricted to normal people but affects politicians and managers as well. Nearly everyone is longing for the world as it was before. And under such circumstances one is willing to make sacrifices for it or contribute with money, effort and work.

To someone who is sitting on an interesting piece of novel technology but who is short of a business model, this is looking like fertile ground.

Scared people are easier convinced and more eager to pay. It is natural to grasp for straws. So the Miracle Healers appear. They have a magic potion, a secret recipe passed down over generations, the blessings of some god or a new technological marvel for you. Care to buy? They are just there to help.

So we see now everyone starts pitching their solution as helpful to solve the Corona crisis:
  • Corona apps are being launched right and left. You cannot go wrong with this one, can't you? China used one, South Korea used one. So it must be the right way. Unluckily this only seems to be true until you look at technical details. Yes, the newest and shiniest mobile phones have Bluetooth variant that comes with any kind of precision. With the phone of most people there will only be two choices:
    • to err on the more sensitive side and wear out people with false alarms or
    • to err on the more correct side and miss contacts.
  • Facial recognition companies are pitching their products to identify people suffering from COVID-19. Unluckily our biggest problem are the asymptomatic carriers who will not be spotted by this.
  • AI is pitched at several fronts to help against the pandemic. No tool is too orwellian not to be pitched in this battle. But some skepticism is warranted. If the last year have shown something it is that AI is a fickle tool. You need a precise application and tons of training data to get any sort of precision and most important: expertise. All those things are in short supply. AI is not a magic wand you wave at a problem. It probably will be a building block when approaching a solution but not more than that.
  • The struggling company Boston Dynamics are offering their robots to support the medical staff.
These are not the most obscure attempts to insert technology into the mix but the most credible ones. Some are probably genuine attempts to help with the crisis and I even may err on their potential use. But, alas, I have little hope.

I am an enthusiast for new technologies and new gadgets. As far as possible I want to get my hand on the new shiny things that people have built for us. It's fun looking for intended and unintended but creative uses. But I do not expect those gadgets to solve critical problems for me. One important lesson I learned: technology cannot solve social problems.

Technology can be and is a real help. The speed with which genetic analysis of the virus is proceeding is nothing but stunning. What science needed decades to do with the HIV virus they managed this time in a few weeks. Creating models of the virus spread and refining those will help a lot when easing the current restrictions.

It is not the first time we found ourselves in such a predicament. After the 911 terror attacks, a similar situation developed. People were scared and the economy tanked. So the Miracle Healers appeared as well and offered us:
  • Data retention and snooping has been widely deployed even though lacking any proven effectiveness.
  • Psychologists offered their help for novel interrogation techniques that turned out to be primitive torture.
  • A British company made millions of US$ on selling a divining rod that was said to detect bombs.
  • Suddenly any attempt to curb on copyright violation was an anti-terror measure.
As it turned out, all of this was just bullshit. Billions were spent on not solving the problem. This was possible because rational thinking was suppressed by fear. The longing for normalcy made us compromise even on issues as basic human rights.

But the lessons of 911 are important in another regard. It teaches us there is no way back into the old world. Even if there really was a miracle cure for the SARS-CoV2-Virus, we would not be back to normal afterwards.

The economic crisis has been long in the making. It would have manifested itself one way or another. The signs and portents have been visible for quite some time. The economic crisis will easily outlast the virus due to that.

Any beyond the hill of the current pandemic we can already see the cliff of climate change which will be an even tougher challenge than the current crisis, much tougher.

We must accept that no Miracle Healer or marvel of technology is going to solve this or the next crisis for us. Technological solutions can be building blocks in a solution but are never the solution itself. The solutions are the future worlds we have to attempt to build for ourselves, but there is no way back. And we must beware of the belief in the Miracle Healers and their toys. They are just distractions.

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