Can you imagine AI’s promise after the coronavirus?

By Amit Kapoor, Mark Esposito, Terence Tse and Josh Entsminger

No generation explores the full opportunities of the technologies at their disposal. The economic gains from the increasing usage of steam engines were only realised decades later with the broad improvements and advancement of railroads. The automobile with the collective improvements to vehicle design and improved roadways. Indeed, as the author William Gibson is so often quoted as saying — the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.

So, as Covid-19 reshapes the global economic scene and humanity looks for new ways to collectively respond, technology is naturally at the forefront – but unlike past generations, the increasing penetration of the internet and a new generation of digital natives is reshaping the way in which new technologies are diffused and democratised, offering a broader opportunity for changing how the next generation might capture the benefits of emerging technologies quicker and more equally. Among these new technologies of promise being looked to for shaping the corona response and the post-corona world, there are few with more interest and promise than artificial intelligence. In the short run, states and frontier organisations have used AI to accelerate covid-19 vaccine creation, to build privacy preserving contact tracing, to reshape hospital bed optimisation, to scale detection of coronavirus in the potentially infected.

While these short run solutions show promise, the question tuns to the current generation of AI engineers and data scientists to explore the solutions which can help improve economic resilience and resolve social issues when the economic lockdown comes to a close. Though indeed, AI is not a magic wand; nor does it belong everywhere. It takes considerable planning and cooperation among actors to make an AI solution scale and become fundamental in an organisation – and likewise, it demands a collective conversation on the rights and responsibilities implied by data capture and advantage analytics.

Nevertheless, Coronavirus offers an opportunity to rethink economic policy, to think commercial strategy, to rethink how public and private partners can collectively rethink the kind of challenges that demand the scale and focus afforded by novel AI developments. We have an opportunity to think about what should remain the same and what we should transform – an opportunity which, unlike technological opportunity more broadly, is not afforded in the same way to every generation. Taking up the call of Mariana Mazzucato, states should consider embracing an entrepreneurial spirit to help crowd in investment on high impact experimentation for fundamental social challenges.

So as we think about how public and private actors consider what to focus on, how to repurpose their skills and talent in the lockdown, and what kinds of ecosystems can drive national competitiveness and growth to respond to social challenges, we recommend a greater focus on the following areas:

Future of Agricultural Production Resilience

The economic consequences of the coronavirus response will reverberate throughout the global economy for years to come – but in the short run of economic planning, the question of agricultural production is taking a massive hit. From the question of immigration and migration in the UK, Germany, China, and USA for ‘low skill’ agricultural labour to the coordination of supply chains, the fundamentals of global catastrophe coordination have to address resilience in agriculture. The question of innovation here remains split between the broad logistical concerns, improved farmer information aggregation for yield optimisation to the question of increasing automation to improve labour redundancy in production. Such questions extend to countries with mass GDP hits and reliant on food imports, thus suffering a double problem of coronavirus resilience. Systems which can better match logistics to production can avoid the insane food waste seemingly endemic in global food value chains.

Future of Public Health Capacity

The health response is split between the production of essential equipment, vaccine creation, and the frontline of healthcare response. Yet the broader question of national public health information distribution and patient management remain critical life or death areas. The future of public health capacity is a multi-stakeholder problem, demanding careful and extended engagement and awareness on scaling out new solutions – but such a problem could improve the fates of tens of thousands, millions over time, as national health care sectors improve their response time and patient care capacity overall.

Such demands are accelerated by poor doctor-patient access ratios or increasing burden of travel times to hospitals and critical resources – as such, the question is not simply improving physical capacity and management, but the broader class of digital and telemedicine solutions to improve access.

Future of Distributed Education

With the risk of a second or third wave of infection coming as the year progresses, the question of opening colleges and universities remains a primary concern. In turn, the question of how to embrace improved digital and distributed education in online environments is paramount. The work of Squirrel AI shows a way forward, as well as the variety of other online academies. But the question is not simply the availability of content, but the teacher to student ratio to assist with learning experiences. Improved chat-bot and automated teaching assistants can help radically shift customised educational experiences at scale, shaping how the next generation learns and how universities and schools can be better prepared for emergency incidents.

Future of Urban Management and Planning

The coronavirus is likewise reshaping how we understand the risk and virtues of density – while agglomeration drives growth and innovation, it increases the probability of contagion spreading. The next generation of cities will need to embrace more progressive analytics for spatial awareness of risk, as well as improved coordination and information distribution in emergency situations. Such planning efforts can have massive payoffs in economic planning and innovation approaches, demonstrated by the work of Aretian Analytics out of Harvard. Such concerns extend to in building planning and spatial arrangements – such as restaurants and public spaces to reduce contagion risk under increasing human foot traffic.

Each of the above areas overlap in predictable way and each was selected not simply for the broadness, but for the requirement by investors to think not simply about the primary investment return but the capacity of society to respond to tail risks. Indeed, as globalization continues and the world grows more complex, there are few things of more value than such capacity.

(Amit Kapoor is chair, Institute for Competitiveness, India & visiting scholar, Stanford University; Mark Esposito is Professor, Harvard University’s Division of Continuing Education; Terence Tse is Professor, ESCP Europe Business School and Joshua Entsminger is a Researcher at Nexus FrontierTech and Senior Fellow at Ecole des Ponts Center for Policy and Competitiveness).

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