BY JUN MUKOYAMA
SPECIAL TO THE JAPAN TIMES
API Geoeconomic Briefing is a series provided by the Asia Pacific Initiative, an independent think tank based in Tokyo. The series will look into geopolitical and economic trends in the post-COVID-19 world, with a particular focus on four areas: technology and innovation, global supply chains, international rule-making and climate change.
On Dec. 31, 2019, about the same time as the World Health Organization’s China Country Office was informed of cases of pneumonia of unknown cause detected in Wuhan, China, BlueDot, a small startup in Toronto, Canada, sent an alert on the outbreak to its clients based on information from its disease analytics platform that a cluster of pneumonia had been reported at a seafood market in the Chinese city.
The warning was sent out five days before the WHO officially issued its Disease Outbreak News (DONs).
BlueDot was founded in 2013 by Dr. Kamran Khan who thought, based on his experience working as a hospital infectious disease specialist in Toronto during the 2003 SARS epidemic, that it would be too late to wait for announcements by government authorities.
The firm, with a team of more than 70 members including veterinarians, doctors, epidemiologists, engineers, data scientists and software developers, analyzes data and send reports to governments, businesses and public health entities.
Its risk software utilizes artificial intelligence-powered algorithms to scan over 100,000 public documents and media articles in 65 languages a day to detect disease outbreaks. It also anticipates how the detected disease would spread and impact the world using diverse datasets including billions of flight itineraries, anonymized location data from millions of cellphones, real-time climate conditions and health system capacity, as well as human, animal and insect population data.
The world’s first scientific paper on the novel coronavirus was an analysis published by BlueDot. This signifies the fact that the use of technologies of the fourth industrial revolution, such as AI, has become a vital factor in determining which countries will win the global fight against COVID-19.
Governments are taking every possible measure to tackle the pandemic, with the effectiveness of their efforts laid out in report cards using common figures including the number of infections, death toll and the state of the economy. And, naturally enough, the use of technology became a significant element in tackling the disease.
China, although it was the COVID-19 epicenter, managed to contain the virus fairly quickly and use “mask diplomacy” to achieve a turnaround in its strategic positioning.
The technologies that supported China’s drastic control measures include a QR-based smartphone app with a health code system that aims to control owners’ activities based on health status; a diagnostic AI tool that can quickly identify COVID-19 pneumonia in CT scan images that helped reduce the burden on hospitals; and a facial recognition system used together with an infrared temperature scanner to enable remote thermal detection of infected individuals, even in crowds.
We have witnessed the tremendous power of China in implementing what Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari describes as “totalitarian surveillance.”
There are three factors characterizing the global race to harness technology to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
First, technology has been used to solve unprecedented challenges, including preventing infections, allocating scarce medical resources and minimizing physical contact under lockdowns.
Second, it was necessary to deal speedily with the exponential growth in infections and medical systems on the brink of collapse.
Third, various technologies were used not only for certain people but for the whole nation to implement government actions aimed at influencing people’s movements.
The issue of harnessing technologies is now closely linked to the governments’ most important task of protecting its people’s lives and to challenges involving society as a whole.
In most cases, however, it is companies, not governments, that possess technologies. Companies also possess massive streams of data to reach people — their user base — quickly and to utilize their technology effectively.
Therefore, if governments want to use technologies, it is vital for them to tie up with companies. This is especially true with platforms which already hold a large user base and a vast amount of data.
For instance, apps for the above-mentioned health code service in China are available on the WeChat and Alipay platforms. Many countries’ governments refer to movement trends data in Google Inc.’s Community Mobility Reports and incorporated an application programming interface (API) provided by Apple Inc. and Google to launch a contact-tracing app to identify close contacts of a user who tests positive.
In Japan, the health ministry conducted a survey on health conditions jointly with Line Corp. with 83 million users and came up with results that revealed some important information which can be used to prevent spread of infections, such as a higher rate of people developing a fever among those working out of office for sales promotion.
While governments rely on platform operators, the relationship sometimes poses challenges, especially in democratic countries.
The U.K. government gave up developing a contact-tracing app using its own technology, since it became evident that it could not gain sufficient results from iPhone users unless it used Apple’s technology.
In Japan, where iPhone users occupy a larger proportion of the mobile phone market compared to other countries, the government decided to adopt a technology provided by Google and Apple, but some confusion occurred as the procurement method had to be quickly changed in line with the conditions presented by the two firms.
Cooperating with platform operators involves the risk of the government’s strategies being affected by technologies and policies of private companies that were not selected through elections.
But it is also true that users will abandon the services of companies unless they continue to win the trust of customers and other stakeholders.
On June 26, Facebook announced it would affix labels on posts that violate hate speech and other policies, following a burgeoning advertiser boycott over its refusal to more aggressively address platform violations, including remarks by U.S. President Donald Trump.
The shift indicated the fact that users are now looking not only for convenience but also for “social good” in online platforms’ services.
Hiroaki Miyata, a professor of health policy and management at Keio University, points out that companies are now required to show how they are contributing toward a variety of social initiatives, not as a pipe dream or an excuse.
He also says the main topics of social good have expanded from climate change before the COVID-19 outbreak to people’s health following the pandemic and, more recently, to human rights issues amid rising calls for racial justice in the U.S.
Online platforms make good business sense only when they meet the needs and values of people who support them.
In view of delicate relationships between governments and companies in democratic nations, one might think that authoritarian countries like China are placed in an overwhelmingly advantageous position.
But it does not necessarily mean only the countries that can keep people and companies under surveillance by power have an advantage in a competition to harness technology.
For example, Taiwan, which has been praised for having managed to contain the virus, avoided panic buying of masks with the help of a face mask map app developed by a group of private-sector engineers based on real-time information on stock levels that became publicly available under the leadership of digital minister Audrey Tang.
The Taiwanese people also show understanding to the government’s leveraging of cellphone location data to monitor people under home quarantine.
Taiwan has carefully prepared to harness a variety of technologies after experiencing the SARS outbreak, while winning the trust of its people by efficiently securing governance and transparency.
Gaining the trust of people is the key to harnessing technologies democratically. Trust can be obtained only if people understand that technology is not an objective but a means to solve problems to achieve policies necessary for them.
As the rate of contract-tracing app adoption remains low in many countries, whether the app functions effectively depends on whether its users understand and accept its objectives and benefits, as well as its risks including privacy concerns.
Governments and companies should share the social benefits of harnessing certain technologies through close communication and gain public trust by increasing transparency in adopting them. This should be the way governments and the private sector collaborate in using technologies in democratic nations.
As the fight against COVID-19 continues, we are still not sure who has won or who has lost. But it is definitely the power to harness technology for social good that will determine the winner in this competition.
The path which should be taken by democracies in this struggle is for governments and the private sector to harness technology while gaining public trust to bring about social benefits to protect the people’s lives and health.
Jun Mukoyama is a fellow at API.