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AI Weekly: The sudden speed of technological change in a coronavirus world

COVID-19 waits for no one, and the speed of its spread has forced the world to act quickly.  From world governments to individual households, all of sudden everyone has had to scrap plans, make new ones, and try to hang on to some kind of new normal as the pandemic causes more unexpected and rapid shifts.

Looking at the tech world, it’s been quite a sight to watch everyone move so fast. As I wrote a few weeks ago, there’s been a digital flotilla of tech people focusing on, and turning their expertise towards, solving the problems related to COVID-19. But with increased speed comes increased noise, which is a mixed blessing.

Like (I presume) all tech journalists right now, my inbox is more full than usual. It’s brimming with endless pitches for chatbots to help give people answers about COVID-19 and even help triage who has what symptoms. There’s been an explosion in apps designed to track the spread of the coronavirus. There are pitches about robots and drones and autonomous vehicles that help in hospitals and deliver supplies. We’re being told about all sorts of AI tools that allege to help medical providers diagnose COVID-19 in patients. Pitches about just about any company, product, or service that could conceivably be related to remote work has come our way.

There are also uplifting pitches about how this or that company is giving away its product or service for free, or adapting it for a selfless purpose to help people with the struggles they’re facing in the wake of job losses or health scares, or marshaling resources to perform much-needed research.

It truly is encouraging, and at times downright inspiring, to see this wealth of new tools and techniques to track, prevent, treat, and in general fight the coronavirus.

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But finding the best parts and pieces amidst the unrelenting noise is a daily — hourly — challenge. As with all technology, hasty execution often invites privacy issues or poor security, like Zoom has experienced even as its daily active users (DAUs) reached the stratosphere. They can also suddenly bump into regulatory hurdles or interoperability issues. (Fortunately, rapid cooperation between governments, researchers, and tech companies, and sometimes between usually strange bedfellows such as Apple and Google, has proven possible.)

Another challenge is separating the do-gooders from the charlatans. When is a company truly being selfless, and when are they just using the pandemic to slip in some positive marketing about their widget? And when is it both? It’s always hard to tell — one should generally be suspicious any time a for-profit company proclaims altruism — but in the noise, it’s even more difficult. Of course, even if there are knock-on or hidden benefits for companies that give away valuable things for free, it’s hard not to be pleased with what IBM, Google, smaller companies like Element AI, and many others, have done to foster research and collaboration in the fight against COVID-19.

When things get noisy and change overwhelmingly fast, that’s usually a sign that we need more focus — but it may be impossible. Taking a broad example, the Gates Foundation is funding manufacturing for multiple potential vaccine trials at once because, Gates said in an interview with Trevor Noah on The Daily Show, there’s not time to evaluate which vaccine has the greatest likelihood of success. Usually a couple best vaccines would emerge from trials, and then they would throw their financial support to manufacturing the best ones — but there’s no time to waste. Instead, they’re planning to “waste” a few billion dollars in the name of urgency.

It’s a worldwide sprint and a marathon all at the same time, and it can be tough to assimilate all the necessary information — or in our case, put together all the many news and analysis stories that come our way. But finding the signal through the noise as it all speeds past us is a new skill we all have to acquire, because combatting this global pandemic is the greatest challenge any of us has faced, and it won’t wait for us to catch up.

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