Few of us alive today have lived through a year so tumultuous, historic, and (yes, that word again) unprecedented as 2020.
We are seeing the biggest health pandemic since 1918’s Spanish Flu; the biggest threat to the world economy since 1929’s Great Crash; and the biggest civil unrest in the US since 1967 — all happening at the same time.
With such change in the air, 2020 should have been technology’s time to shine.
Over the past several decades, the speed of new technologies altering our everyday lives has been breakneck: from the smartphones in our pockets to the drones above our heads, almost no part of the way we live our lives has been left untouched by the innovations from the world’s finest minds.
So when faced with “the biggest challenge since World War II” (the UN’s words, not mine), technology should have been right by our side to help us take on a virus the likes of which almost nobody alive had ever seen.
The problem is that technology’s role in the fight against Covid-19 has been a bit of a damp squib.
We have become so used to technology solving most of our problems — GPS locating where we should be, Google presenting us with the answers, even Tinder finding us a date — that the expectations weighing on technology’s role in tackling the Covid-19 crisis were heavy and palpable.
But, no, the machines haven’t saved us. The robots didn’t take care of the sick. The algorithms didn’t help the most vulnerable. The solutions have been human and, in many ways, basic.
To avoid getting sick, we have been staying at home, keeping two metres away from each other, shunning public transport, wearing masks, and obsessively washing our hands (happy birthday to you…).
True, the greatest experiment in working from home of all time has worked better than most of us expected. True, internet providers have stepped up to cope with huge demands from an army of remote workers. And true, streaming services have saved us from boredom (thank you Joe Exotic). But almost nobody has been clapping for technology on Thursday evenings: instead we clapped for NHS staff, delivery drivers, shop workers, food manufacturers, and the police. We very quickly learned who is an essential worker and who is not.
So where does that leave people like me? The data scientists, the academics, the engineers, the IT specialists? Where have they been during this pandemic?
We know that technology is able to help us fight off challenges as big and global as a health emergency. Indeed, the technology is there: the artificial intelligence and the machine learning, the analytical tools, the scientists and engineers. There are pockets of expertise to be found all over the globe. In fact, behind the scenes the best scientific minds have been working on potential solutions to a host of Covid challenges. and the work they have done has been nothing short of remarkable.
The issue is this technology has not been deployed well, nor properly joined up. If there is one lesson learned it is that the scientific community needs to work better globally. A fragmented, siloed, compartmentalised approach just will not work in the face of global threats.
What is needed is an effort to work together more internationally and recognise that global challenges need global solutions.
For this to happen there needs to be better deployment of the already available (and highly capable) technology at a national and even organisational level. The pandemic has alerted many organisations, industries, and indeed countries to the fact they’re not as digitally advanced as they should be or perhaps thought they were. Even before the pandemic organisations were recognising the need for “digital transformation” so that data and analytics are used to inform every decision across the enterprise — meaning better decisions are made more quickly.
2020 is the year we learned about the true power of what humans can do. It’s now the time to equip them with the power that comes from a global response from the scientific community, driven by widespread use of analytics and artificial intelligence to inform that response.
I have always believed in the potential of AI to help solve the biggest challenges in our world: only by working together on a global scale can we achieve this.
Main image credit: Getty