Author: Kyriaki Papageorgiou, Ph.D. in Anthropology, Director of Research at Esade’s Fusion Point.

This article was originally posted on Forbes.

The speed and scale with which Covid-19 has spread over the course of just a few months are reconfiguring the way we think and act alongside technology to tackle grand challenges in times of crisis.  Since being forced to move our lives indoors and online, we have become dependent on our technological devices to conduct human-to-human interactions beyond the confines of our homes. In addition to elevating technology’s mediating role (the consequences of which are likely to be long-lasting and transformative in many ways), the coronavirus has opened the door to new technological actors, such as robots and artificial intelligence (AI), visibly bringing to life contested scenarios of automated futures that we had only been able to imagine before.

Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 disease, robots of different shapes and forms have been summoned to deliver medicines and goods, help doctors treat patients, clean, patrol, and entertain. Just a few days before Spain’s lockdown, one of the robots put into action in Covid-19 affected areas, received an award at the European Robotics Forum held in Malaga due to its successful commercialization and for addressing the challenge of preventing further infections. The UVD robot, developed by a Danish consortium, works with ultraviolet light that kills viruses and bacteria. It functions autonomously in hospitals and other high-risk areas, minimizing the spread of viruses while protecting healthcare workers and support staff.

In addition to enabling robots to carry out complex tasks without human intervention, AI has also been in the spotlight in the fight against Covid-19 for its ability to absorb and quickly analyze large amounts of data. AI is being lauded for providing early warnings about the outbreak and generating insights into the virus’ nature, treatment and evolution. For example, some AI models are able to read medical images in CT scans and identify Covid-19’s unique radiological signatures, thus substantially reducing the time doctors need to diagnose it. Similarly, ongoing research is using AI for drug repurposing and discovery, as well as to identify patients that are likely to require special care and hospitalization.

More widely known AI applications probably include epidemiological forecasting models. Considering the coronavirus’ fast progression around the world and the importance of informed and timely public healthcare interventions, it is not surprising that AI techniques are being widely employed to generate models that predict the pandemic’s magnitude and duration. AI’s strengths and weaknesses are rendered obvious in the quality and variation of these projections.Evidently, the conclusions of AI forecasting models depend on the quality of the algorithms on which they are built. Fundamentally, these algorithms rely on accurate Covid-19 case reporting. In turn, both algorithms and data also raise questions regarding truth and transparency that are heightened by the ‘infodemic’ Covid-19 has spread. Similar to epidemiological models, AI-powered models are also used to track the dissemination of information, especially rumors and misreports. This can lead to a better understanding of the social dynamics underlying these trends.

The case may be that the technically easiest though most controversial use of robots and AI against Covid-19 is for surveillance and social control.Since quarantines have been determined to be the most effective measure to minimize the virus’ spread, public authorities have employed tools such as ‘coronavirus spy drones’ to ensure that people stay home. Coupled with facial recognition (that works even when wearing surgical masks) and other biometric and tracking technologies, there is little about personal privacy that remains intact. Even though these measures and current technological experiments may be deemed necessary in a declared ‘state of emergency,’ we still don’t understand enough about their broader and enduring societal consequences. And here is where the humanities and social sciences can make a valuable contribution.  

The work of French philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucault, for instance, has shown that state responses to epidemics at different moments in history represent distinct approaches to population management. While isolation and exclusion were regarded as effective to contain leprosy, implementing extreme quarantine measures against the plague signaled the emergence of disciplinary power based on panopticism. In Discipline and Punish (1975) Foucault emphasizes that the Panopticon represents the perfect form for the exercise of control because it “automatizes and deindividualizes power” while becoming a laboratory, “a machine to carry out experiments, to alter behavior, to train or correct individuals.”           

Without a doubt, the measures implemented due to the present pandemic’s exceptional circumstances signal emergent ‘arts of government’ that are capable of becoming more automated and deindividualized than ever, and, at the same time, incredibly personalized. And the effects of these measures will surely have a different set of implications for different countries and populations. As Sheila Jasanoff recently pointed out, amidst the quest for techno-scientific solutions to Covid-19, it is important to remember the entanglement of technoscience with society, and grapple with questions of gender, inequality and democracy. Explanation and transparency, Jasanoff emphasizes, have been shown to encourage people to abide by policy measures, whereas “decisions that are perceived as remote, authoritarian, or unexplained, are not accepted.” And the best decisions are made when different kinds of knowledge are meaningfully brought together.

It is encouraging to see how the search for solutions to fight against the coronavirus has led scientific publishers to open up and telecom operators to share data with governments. At the same time, AI tools are being employed to expedite research, while online hackathons, like #EUvsVirus, are engaging civil society in the virtual sphere. This virus has not only illustrated how humanity and technology are intimately interlinked, it is a test and an opportunity for participatory democracy, responsible capitalism, and global cooperation. Furthermore, it has opened up a new and promising pathway of doing research and innovation. The question is, how can we sustain and employ the spirit of openness and collegiality instigated by the Covid-19 pandemic to tackle other grand challenges and societal malaise?