If we could turn back the clock on the coronavirus pandemic, what would we do?
Putting aside personal issues, as a global community we could have had a plan in place, ready to test and to treat across the world. We have the technology to create an AI that could have created an early warning strategy to track, trace and treat, on a global scale. To limit transport links to stop spread, to create treatment regimes using effective technologies, to limit the spread of Covid 19 on a macro and neighbourhood level. We live in a highly connected world. What is the reason we are not already on track for a full AI strategy to deal with the three big threats, which are pandemics, nuclear war, and climate change with all of its attendant disasters? Why isn’t the horror being contained, why aren’t lives and whole economies being saved?
“We” is the community that sees itself as global citizens. Then there is another strata: the politicians placing power before all, the anti-vaccers, the racists parading as patriotic citizens, and the rest of the science rejecting individualists with their fists in the air as the innocents around them fall victim to Covid 19. It is a strata system that ensures that no global co-operative strategy will emerge, or would have emerged even if we had known what was about to happen. Yet highly multi-cultural societies such as those in Australia have succeeded in enabling community action to control the virus – practising social distancing, coming forward for testing, people doing what they are asked to do by state and federal governments that are listening to the medical scientists.
So, globally, we have failed to develop modelling and action plans for the three major disasters that directly threaten us, even though we have the means and will to do it. The politicians have pushed the view that coordinated action means developing a sinister Artificial Intelligence type of system that eventually will overtake our system of governance. That national sovereignty is the value that should hold above all else. No wonder politicians in general are a reviled group of people who need to grab more and more power, surveillance capability to use against their own citizens, and divisive rhetoric to stop a unified polity demanding better governance. Is an open-source AI really the big problem here? The three major threats we face; pandemics, nuclear war, and climate change and its attendant regional disasters, essentially remain the subject of endless international negotiations. The UN and WHO have structural issues that constantly prevent transformation. There is no solution in sight. How a country performs in the face of these disasters is nothing more than the sum of the intelligence and ability of individual political leaders, as the responses to the coronavirus pandemic have shown. This model has been shown to be wanting, and many thousands of deaths are silent witness to this fact. Australia and New Zealand have so far had remarkably few deaths from coronavirus, due to the rapid response from public health leaders and politicians to warnings from experts. There is an obvious conclusion to be drawn from this: politicians in general cannot cope with the major threats we face on a global scale. We need to use the technological capabilities we have developed to create science-based strategies that curb the powers of politicians to overturn those strategies. Opposition will always be instructive. Individual rights will always be important, but not as important as human survival on a global level.
Firstly, let us look at modelling as a means to control the response to the big three threats. Modelling is a complex mathematical process that is in development using computer based systems. There are competing models and competing results. Yet these systems have the same level of veracity as computer based systems that maintain aircraft in their flight. Well tested modelling of results of disasters such as global pandemics tell us very accurately what is about to happen. There should be massive investment in modelling capability for the big three scenarios, because without systematic investment, the level of modelling required will never happen. There are other areas that need such modelling to be done.
But let us focus on the big three. Once the modelling is done, what then?
Accepting that it will be ongoing is one step. The second, and highly problematic step, is creating a system where effective global prevention and action plans may be set up. The past (and present) are littered with attempts to create collaborative global governance systems to serve the greater good. The lessons from this are indeed sobering to an idealist.
What has changed is that we have now a set of global ethics, a concept of global citizenship, that sets a base for a modelling and disaster governance plan (because that is what this is). We cannot avoid the issues of power and governance. In the past, efforts at global collaboration have foundered on the rocks of political interference, corruption, and malign interference with data. If there is one thing that a collaborative well-modelled action plan needs, it is transparency and independence. The issues of mission creep need also to be dealt with. When does reform become oppression?
Let us say that we had a globally supported, independent MDG (modelling and disaster governance) plan. How would it work? The rebuild of the global economy that will proceed when the coronavirus epidemic is over should incorporate the global principles that that been fostered by the development of an almost universal internet capability. These include maximising human survival, equality, full internet access, openness and transparency, freedom of expression and free use of cryptography, and protection of children. One would like to add sustainability, both of the environment and the human and other species that occupy our world, but this principle has not yet gained universal acceptance. However, incorporating those principles which have been accepted globally already, would protect the development of an MDG plan. This plan would inevitably involve change, and many global players, both governmental and corporate, would seek to modify the changes in their own interests. The challenges of creating a MDG plan are many, but post-coronavirus, as we confront our changed world, there is an opportunity for all of us to see how technology can work for us going forward, and to demand better. This is the political opportunity of a lifetime. We need to demand politicians who will work on a global co-operative scale, who will put the welfare of people before power, and who understand how this technology works. And if necessary, be able to step back to allow it to work.
The traditional governance structures, the national governments, the hierarchies, the working economies, will still be with us, and in fact would be protected by a limited system of collaborative global disaster protection and management. Given the events that have befallen us, and the ability we already have to do better, the real question is: how can we do better? In failed states and poorer regions the death toll stands to be even higher when disaster strikes. The coronavirus epidemic may be uncontrollable in a diverse roll-call of countries. But as events have shown, we are all implicated.
The real change that needs to take place is the huge reframing of our way of thinking; nationalistic rhetoric needs to be replaced by acceptance of global citizenship and everything that goes with it. Our new mission needs to be prevent, plan, and use the power of the internet, computer based modelling and all the other technologies, to create an MDG plan. If this system leads to better global governance, and acceptance of other elements of independent global governance, then the dire vision of artificial intelligence as a vicious robot will be finally laid to rest. In its place we will create a complex, effective, and controlled means to save lives when the next global disaster strikes. The lessons of the coronavirus epidemic may eventually enable a backdoor approach to addressing the drivers of climate change, by creating a full picture of its future effects. And possibly, this will lead to an integrated plan for a sustainable future. The opportunity for all of us to start working hard for this outcome is with us now, as people all over the world confront the cost of our failure to pick up the tools that we have.