Tag Archives: effects

#437357 Algorithms Workers Can’t See Are ...

“I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.” HAL’s cold, if polite, refusal to open the pod bay doors in 2001: A Space Odyssey has become a defining warning about putting too much trust in artificial intelligence, particularly if you work in space.

In the movies, when a machine decides to be the boss (or humans let it) things go wrong. Yet despite myriad dystopian warnings, control by machines is fast becoming our reality.

Algorithms—sets of instructions to solve a problem or complete a task—now drive everything from browser search results to better medical care.

They are helping design buildings. They are speeding up trading on financial markets, making and losing fortunes in micro-seconds. They are calculating the most efficient routes for delivery drivers.

In the workplace, self-learning algorithmic computer systems are being introduced by companies to assist in areas such as hiring, setting tasks, measuring productivity, evaluating performance, and even terminating employment: “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid you are being made redundant.”

Giving self‐learning algorithms the responsibility to make and execute decisions affecting workers is called “algorithmic management.” It carries a host of risks in depersonalizing management systems and entrenching pre-existing biases.

At an even deeper level, perhaps, algorithmic management entrenches a power imbalance between management and worker. Algorithms are closely guarded secrets. Their decision-making processes are hidden. It’s a black-box: perhaps you have some understanding of the data that went in, and you see the result that comes out, but you have no idea of what goes on in between.

Algorithms at Work
Here are a few examples of algorithms already at work.

At Amazon’s fulfillment center in south-east Melbourne, they set the pace for “pickers,” who have timers on their scanners showing how long they have to find the next item. As soon as they scan that item, the timer resets for the next. All at a “not quite walking, not quite running” speed.

Or how about AI determining your success in a job interview? More than 700 companies have trialed such technology. US developer HireVue says its software speeds up the hiring process by 90 percent by having applicants answer identical questions and then scoring them according to language, tone, and facial expressions.

Granted, human assessments during job interviews are notoriously flawed. Algorithms,however, can also be biased. The classic example is the COMPAS software used by US judges, probation, and parole officers to rate a person’s risk of re-offending. In 2016 a ProPublica investigation showed the algorithm was heavily discriminatory, incorrectly classifying black subjects as higher risk 45 percent of the time, compared with 23 percent for white subjects.

How Gig Workers Cope
Algorithms do what their code tells them to do. The problem is this code is rarely available. This makes them difficult to scrutinize, or even understand.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the gig economy. Uber, Lyft, Deliveroo, and other platforms could not exist without algorithms allocating, monitoring, evaluating, and rewarding work.

Over the past year Uber Eats’ bicycle couriers and drivers, for instance, have blamed unexplained changes to the algorithm for slashing their jobs, and incomes.

Rider’s can’t be 100 percent sure it was all down to the algorithm. But that’s part of the problem. The fact those who depend on the algorithm don’t know one way or the other has a powerful influence on them.

This is a key result from our interviews with 58 food-delivery couriers. Most knew their jobs were allocated by an algorithm (via an app). They knew the app collected data. What they didn’t know was how data was used to award them work.

In response, they developed a range of strategies (or guessed how) to “win” more jobs, such as accepting gigs as quickly as possible and waiting in “magic” locations. Ironically, these attempts to please the algorithm often meant losing the very flexibility that was one of the attractions of gig work.

The information asymmetry created by algorithmic management has two profound effects. First, it threatens to entrench systemic biases, the type of discrimination hidden within the COMPAS algorithm for years. Second, it compounds the power imbalance between management and worker.

Our data also confirmed others’ findings that it is almost impossible to complain about the decisions of the algorithm. Workers often do not know the exact basis of those decisions, and there’s no one to complain to anyway. When Uber Eats bicycle couriers asked for reasons about their plummeting income, for example, responses from the company advised them “we have no manual control over how many deliveries you receive.”

Broader Lessons
When algorithmic management operates as a “black box” one of the consequences is that it is can become an indirect control mechanism. Thus far under-appreciated by Australian regulators, this control mechanism has enabled platforms to mobilize a reliable and scalable workforce while avoiding employer responsibilities.

“The absence of concrete evidence about how the algorithms operate”, the Victorian government’s inquiry into the “on-demand” workforce notes in its report, “makes it hard for a driver or rider to complain if they feel disadvantaged by one.”

The report, published in June, also found it is “hard to confirm if concern over algorithm transparency is real.”

But it is precisely the fact it is hard to confirm that’s the problem. How can we start to even identify, let alone resolve, issues like algorithmic management?

Fair conduct standards to ensure transparency and accountability are a start. One example is the Fair Work initiative, led by the Oxford Internet Institute. The initiative is bringing together researchers with platforms, workers, unions, and regulators to develop global principles for work in the platform economy. This includes “fair management,” which focuses on how transparent the results and outcomes of algorithms are for workers.

Understandings about impact of algorithms on all forms of work is still in its infancy. It demands greater scrutiny and research. Without human oversight based on agreed principles we risk inviting HAL into our workplaces.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Image Credit: PickPik Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#437301 The Global Work Crisis: Automation, the ...

The alarm bell rings. You open your eyes, come to your senses, and slide from dream state to consciousness. You hit the snooze button, and eventually crawl out of bed to the start of yet another working day.

This daily narrative is experienced by billions of people all over the world. We work, we eat, we sleep, and we repeat. As our lives pass day by day, the beating drums of the weekly routine take over and years pass until we reach our goal of retirement.

A Crisis of Work
We repeat the routine so that we can pay our bills, set our kids up for success, and provide for our families. And after a while, we start to forget what we would do with our lives if we didn’t have to go back to work.

In the end, we look back at our careers and reflect on what we’ve achieved. It may have been the hundreds of human interactions we’ve had; the thousands of emails read and replied to; the millions of minutes of physical labor—all to keep the global economy ticking along.

According to Gallup’s World Poll, only 15 percent of people worldwide are actually engaged with their jobs. The current state of “work” is not working for most people. In fact, it seems we as a species are trapped by a global work crisis, which condemns people to cast away their time just to get by in their day-to-day lives.

Technologies like artificial intelligence and automation may help relieve the work burdens of millions of people—but to benefit from their impact, we need to start changing our social structures and the way we think about work now.

The Specter of Automation
Automation has been ongoing since the Industrial Revolution. In recent decades it has taken on a more elegant guise, first with physical robots in production plants, and more recently with software automation entering most offices.

The driving goal behind much of this automation has always been productivity and hence, profits: technology that can act as a multiplier on what a single human can achieve in a day is of huge value to any company. Powered by this strong financial incentive, the quest for automation is growing ever more pervasive.

But if automation accelerates or even continues at its current pace and there aren’t strong social safety nets in place to catch the people who are negatively impacted (such as by losing their jobs), there could be a host of knock-on effects, including more concentrated wealth among a shrinking elite, more strain on government social support, an increase in depression and drug dependence, and even violent social unrest.

It seems as though we are rushing headlong into a major crisis, driven by the engine of accelerating automation. But what if instead of automation challenging our fragile status quo, we view it as the solution that can free us from the shackles of the Work Crisis?

The Way Out
In order to undertake this paradigm shift, we need to consider what society could potentially look like, as well as the problems associated with making this change. In the context of these crises, our primary aim should be for a system where people are not obligated to work to generate the means to survive. This removal of work should not threaten access to food, water, shelter, education, healthcare, energy, or human value. In our current system, work is the gatekeeper to these essentials: one can only access these (and even then often in a limited form), if one has a “job” that affords them.

Changing this system is thus a monumental task. This comes with two primary challenges: providing people without jobs with financial security, and ensuring they maintain a sense of their human value and worth. There are several measures that could be implemented to help meet these challenges, each with important steps for society to consider.

Universal basic income (UBI)

UBI is rapidly gaining support, and it would allow people to become shareholders in the fruits of automation, which would then be distributed more broadly.

UBI trials have been conducted in various countries around the world, including Finland, Kenya, and Spain. The findings have generally been positive on the health and well-being of the participants, and showed no evidence that UBI disincentivizes work, a common concern among the idea’s critics. The most recent popular voice for UBI has been that of former US presidential candidate Andrew Yang, who now runs a non-profit called Humanity Forward.

UBI could also remove wasteful bureaucracy in administering welfare payments (since everyone receives the same amount, there’s no need to prevent false claims), and promote the pursuit of projects aligned with peoples’ skill sets and passions, as well as quantifying the value of tasks not recognized by economic measures like Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This includes looking after children and the elderly at home.

How a UBI can be initiated with political will and social backing and paid for by governments has been hotly debated by economists and UBI enthusiasts. Variables like how much the UBI payments should be, whether to implement taxes such as Yang’s proposed valued added tax (VAT), whether to replace existing welfare payments, the impact on inflation, and the impact on “jobs” from people who would otherwise look for work require additional discussion. However, some have predicted the inevitability of UBI as a result of automation.

Universal healthcare

Another major component of any society is the healthcare of its citizens. A move away from work would further require the implementation of a universal healthcare system to decouple healthcare from jobs. Currently in the US, and indeed many other economies, healthcare is tied to employment.

Universal healthcare such as Medicare in Australia is evidence for the adage “prevention is better than cure,” when comparing the cost of healthcare in the US with Australia on a per capita basis. This has already presented itself as an advancement in the way healthcare is considered. There are further benefits of a healthier population, including less time and money spent on “sick-care.” Healthy people are more likely and more able to achieve their full potential.

Reshape the economy away from work-based value

One of the greatest challenges in a departure from work is for people to find value elsewhere in life. Many people view their identities as being inextricably tied to their jobs, and life without a job is therefore a threat to one’s sense of existence. This presents a shift that must be made at both a societal and personal level.

A person can only seek alternate value in life when afforded the time to do so. To this end, we need to start reducing “work-for-a-living” hours towards zero, which is a trend we are already seeing in Europe. This should not come at the cost of reducing wages pro rata, but rather could be complemented by UBI or additional schemes where people receive dividends for work done by automation. This transition makes even more sense when coupled with the idea of deviating from using GDP as a measure of societal growth, and instead adopting a well-being index based on universal human values like health, community, happiness, and peace.

The crux of this issue is in transitioning away from the view that work gives life meaning and life is about using work to survive, towards a view of living a life that itself is fulfilling and meaningful. This speaks directly to notions from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where work largely addresses psychological and safety needs such as shelter, food, and financial well-being. More people should have a chance to grow beyond the most basic needs and engage in self-actualization and transcendence.

The question is largely around what would provide people with a sense of value, and the answers would differ as much as people do; self-mastery, building relationships and contributing to community growth, fostering creativity, and even engaging in the enjoyable aspects of existing jobs could all come into play.

Universal education

With a move towards a society that promotes the values of living a good life, the education system would have to evolve as well. Researchers have long argued for a more nimble education system, but universities and even most online courses currently exist for the dominant purpose of ensuring people are adequately skilled to contribute to the economy. These “job factories” only exacerbate the Work Crisis. In fact, the response often given by educational institutions to the challenge posed by automation is to find new ways of upskilling students, such as ensuring they are all able to code. As alluded to earlier, this is a limited and unimaginative solution to the problem we are facing.

Instead, education should be centered on helping people acknowledge the current crisis of work and automation, teach them how to derive value that is decoupled from work, and enable people to embrace progress as we transition to the new economy.

Disrupting the Status Quo
While we seldom stop to think about it, much of the suffering faced by humanity is brought about by the systemic foe that is the Work Crisis. The way we think about work has brought society far and enabled tremendous developments, but at the same time it has failed many people. Now the status quo is threatened by those very developments as we progress to an era where machines are likely to take over many job functions.

This impending paradigm shift could be a threat to the stability of our fragile system, but only if it is not fully anticipated. If we prepare for it appropriately, it could instead be the key not just to our survival, but to a better future for all.

Image Credit: mostafa meraji from Pixabay Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#437261 How AI Will Make Drug Discovery ...

If you had to guess how long it takes for a drug to go from an idea to your pharmacy, what would you guess? Three years? Five years? How about the cost? $30 million? $100 million?

Well, here’s the sobering truth: 90 percent of all drug possibilities fail. The few that do succeed take an average of 10 years to reach the market and cost anywhere from $2.5 billion to $12 billion to get there.

But what if we could generate novel molecules to target any disease, overnight, ready for clinical trials? Imagine leveraging machine learning to accomplish with 50 people what the pharmaceutical industry can barely do with an army of 5,000.

Welcome to the future of AI and low-cost, ultra-fast, and personalized drug discovery. Let’s dive in.

GANs & Drugs
Around 2012, computer scientist-turned-biophysicist Alex Zhavoronkov started to notice that artificial intelligence was getting increasingly good at image, voice, and text recognition. He knew that all three tasks shared a critical commonality. In each, massive datasets were available, making it easy to train up an AI.

But similar datasets were present in pharmacology. So, back in 2014, Zhavoronkov started wondering if he could use these datasets and AI to significantly speed up the drug discovery process. He’d heard about a new technique in artificial intelligence known as generative adversarial networks (or GANs). By pitting two neural nets against one another (adversarial), the system can start with minimal instructions and produce novel outcomes (generative). At the time, researchers had been using GANs to do things like design new objects or create one-of-a-kind, fake human faces, but Zhavoronkov wanted to apply them to pharmacology.

He figured GANs would allow researchers to verbally describe drug attributes: “The compound should inhibit protein X at concentration Y with minimal side effects in humans,” and then the AI could construct the molecule from scratch. To turn his idea into reality, Zhavoronkov set up Insilico Medicine on the campus of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and rolled up his sleeves.

Instead of beginning their process in some exotic locale, Insilico’s “drug discovery engine” sifts millions of data samples to determine the signature biological characteristics of specific diseases. The engine then identifies the most promising treatment targets and—using GANs—generates molecules (that is, baby drugs) perfectly suited for them. “The result is an explosion in potential drug targets and a much more efficient testing process,” says Zhavoronkov. “AI allows us to do with fifty people what a typical drug company does with five thousand.”

The results have turned what was once a decade-long war into a month-long skirmish.

In late 2018, for example, Insilico was generating novel molecules in fewer than 46 days, and this included not just the initial discovery, but also the synthesis of the drug and its experimental validation in computer simulations.

Right now, they’re using the system to hunt down new drugs for cancer, aging, fibrosis, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, ALS, diabetes, and many others. The first drug to result from this work, a treatment for hair loss, is slated to start Phase I trials by the end of 2020.

They’re also in the early stages of using AI to predict the outcomes of clinical trials in advance of the trial. If successful, this technique will enable researchers to strip a bundle of time and money out of the traditional testing process.

Protein Folding
Beyond inventing new drugs, AI is also being used by other scientists to identify new drug targets—that is, the place to which a drug binds in the body and another key part of the drug discovery process.

Between 1980 and 2006, despite an annual investment of $30 billion, researchers only managed to find about five new drug targets a year. The trouble is complexity. Most potential drug targets are proteins, and a protein’s structure—meaning the way a 2D sequence of amino acids folds into a 3D protein—determines its function.

But a protein with merely a hundred amino acids (a rather small protein) can produce a googol-cubed worth of potential shapes—that’s a one followed by three hundred zeroes. This is also why protein-folding has long been considered an intractably hard problem for even the most powerful of supercomputers.

Back in 1994, to monitor supercomputers’ progress in protein-folding, a biannual competition was created. Until 2018, success was fairly rare. But then the creators of DeepMind turned their neural networks loose on the problem. They created an AI that mines enormous datasets to determine the most likely distance between a protein’s base pairs and the angles of their chemical bonds—aka, the basics of protein-folding. They called it AlphaFold.

On its first foray into the competition, contestant AIs were given 43 protein-folding problems to solve. AlphaFold got 25 right. The second-place team managed a meager three. By predicting the elusive ways in which various proteins fold on the basis of their amino acid sequences, AlphaFold may soon have a tremendous impact in aiding drug discovery and fighting some of today’s most intractable diseases.

Drug Delivery
Another theater of war for improved drugs is the realm of drug delivery. Even here, converging exponential technologies are paving the way for massive implications in both human health and industry shifts.

One key contender is CRISPR, the fast-advancing gene-editing technology that stands to revolutionize synthetic biology and treatment of genetically linked diseases. And researchers have now demonstrated how this tool can be applied to create materials that shape-shift on command. Think: materials that dissolve instantaneously when faced with a programmed stimulus, releasing a specified drug at a highly targeted location.

Yet another potential boon for targeted drug delivery is nanotechnology, whereby medical nanorobots have now been used to fight incidences of cancer. In a recent review of medical micro- and nanorobotics, lead authors (from the University of Texas at Austin and University of California, San Diego) found numerous successful tests of in vivo operation of medical micro- and nanorobots.

Drugs From the Future
Covid-19 is uniting the global scientific community with its urgency, prompting scientists to cast aside nation-specific territorialism, research secrecy, and academic publishing politics in favor of expedited therapeutic and vaccine development efforts. And in the wake of rapid acceleration across healthcare technologies, Big Pharma is an area worth watching right now, no matter your industry. Converging technologies will soon enable extraordinary strides in longevity and disease prevention, with companies like Insilico leading the charge.

Riding the convergence of massive datasets, skyrocketing computational power, quantum computing, cognitive surplus capabilities, and remarkable innovations in AI, we are not far from a world in which personalized drugs, delivered directly to specified targets, will graduate from science fiction to the standard of care.

Rejuvenational biotechnology will be commercially available sooner than you think. When I asked Alex for his own projection, he set the timeline at “maybe 20 years—that’s a reasonable horizon for tangible rejuvenational biotechnology.”

How might you use an extra 20 or more healthy years in your life? What impact would you be able to make?

Join Me
(1) A360 Executive Mastermind: If you’re an exponentially and abundance-minded entrepreneur who would like coaching directly from me, consider joining my Abundance 360 Mastermind, a highly selective community of 360 CEOs and entrepreneurs who I coach for 3 days every January in Beverly Hills, Ca. Through A360, I provide my members with context and clarity about how converging exponential technologies will transform every industry. I’m committed to running A360 for the course of an ongoing 25-year journey as a “countdown to the Singularity.”

If you’d like to learn more and consider joining our 2021 membership, apply here.

(2) Abundance-Digital Online Community: I’ve also created a Digital/Online community of bold, abundance-minded entrepreneurs called Abundance-Digital. Abundance-Digital is Singularity University’s ‘onramp’ for exponential entrepreneurs—those who want to get involved and play at a higher level. Click here to learn more.

(Both A360 and Abundance-Digital are part of Singularity University—your participation opens you to a global community.)

This article originally appeared on diamandis.com. Read the original article here.

Image Credit: andreas160578 from Pixabay Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#437157 A Human-Centric World of Work: Why It ...

Long before coronavirus appeared and shattered our pre-existing “normal,” the future of work was a widely discussed and debated topic. We’ve watched automation slowly but surely expand its capabilities and take over more jobs, and we’ve wondered what artificial intelligence will eventually be capable of.

The pandemic swiftly turned the working world on its head, putting millions of people out of a job and forcing millions more to work remotely. But essential questions remain largely unchanged: we still want to make sure we’re not replaced, we want to add value, and we want an equitable society where different types of work are valued fairly.

To address these issues—as well as how the pandemic has impacted them—this week Singularity University held a digital summit on the future of work. Forty-three speakers from multiple backgrounds, countries, and sectors of the economy shared their expertise on everything from work in developing markets to why we shouldn’t want to go back to the old normal.

Gary Bolles, SU’s chair for the Future of Work, kicked off the discussion with his thoughts on a future of work that’s human-centric, including why it matters and how to build it.

What Is Work?
“Work” seems like a straightforward concept to define, but since it’s constantly shifting shape over time, let’s make sure we’re on the same page. Bolles defined work, very basically, as human skills applied to problems.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a dirty floor or a complex market entry strategy or a major challenge in the world,” he said. “We as humans create value by applying our skills to solve problems in the world.” You can think of the problems that need solving as the demand and human skills as the supply, and the two are in constant oscillation, including, every few decades or centuries, a massive shift.

We’re in the midst of one of those shifts right now (and we already were, long before the pandemic). Skills that have long been in demand are declining. The World Economic Forum’s 2018 Future of Jobs report listed things like manual dexterity, management of financial and material resources, and quality control and safety awareness as declining skills. Meanwhile, skills the next generation will need include analytical thinking and innovation, emotional intelligence, creativity, and systems analysis.

Along Came a Pandemic
With the outbreak of coronavirus and its spread around the world, the demand side of work shrunk; all the problems that needed solving gave way to the much bigger, more immediate problem of keeping people alive. But as a result, tens of millions of people around the world are out of work—and those are just the ones that are being counted, and they’re a fraction of the true total. There are additional millions in seasonal or gig jobs or who work in informal economies now without work, too.

“This is our opportunity to focus,” Bolles said. “How do we help people re-engage with work? And make it better work, a better economy, and a better set of design heuristics for a world that we all want?”

Bolles posed five key questions—some spurred by impact of the pandemic—on which future of work conversations should focus to make sure it’s a human-centric future.

1. What does an inclusive world of work look like? Rather than seeing our current systems of work as immutable, we need to actually understand those systems and how we want to change them.

2. How can we increase the value of human work? We know that robots and software are going to be fine in the future—but for humans to be fine, we need to design for that very intentionally.

3. How can entrepreneurship help create a better world of work? In many economies the new value that’s created often comes from younger companies; how do we nurture entrepreneurship?

4. What will the intersection of workplace and geography look like? A large percentage of the global workforce is now working from home; what could some of the outcomes of that be? How does gig work fit in?

5. How can we ensure a healthy evolution of work and life? The health and the protection of those at risk is why we shut down our economies, but we need to find a balance that allows people to work while keeping them safe.

Problem-Solving Doesn’t End
The end result these questions are driving towards, and our overarching goal, is maximizing human potential. “If we come up with ways we can continue to do that, we’ll have a much more beneficial future of work,” Bolles said. “We should all be talking about where we can have an impact.”

One small silver lining? We had plenty of problems to solve in the world before ever hearing about coronavirus, and now we have even more. Is the pace of automation accelerating due to the virus? Yes. Are companies finding more ways to automate their processes in order to keep people from getting sick? They are.

But we have a slew of new problems on our hands, and we’re not going to stop needing human skills to solve them (not to mention the new problems that will surely emerge as second- and third-order effects of the shutdowns). If Bolles’ definition of work holds up, we’ve got ours cut out for us.

In an article from April titled The Great Reset, Bolles outlined three phases of the unemployment slump (we’re currently still in the first phase) and what we should be doing to minimize the damage. “The evolution of work is not about what will happen 10 to 20 years from now,” he said. “It’s about what we could be doing differently today.”

Watch Bolles’ talk and those of dozens of other experts for more insights into building a human-centric future of work here.

Image Credit: www_slon_pics from Pixabay Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#437103 How to Make Sense of Uncertainty in a ...

As the internet churns with information about Covid-19, about the virus that causes the disease, and about what we’re supposed to do to fight it, it can be difficult to see the forest for the trees. What can we realistically expect for the rest of 2020? And how do we even know what’s realistic?

Today, humanity’s primary, ideal goal is to eliminate the virus, SARS-CoV-2, and Covid-19. Our second-choice goal is to control virus transmission. Either way, we have three big aims: to save lives, to return to public life, and to keep the economy functioning.

To hit our second-choice goal—and maybe even our primary goal—countries are pursuing five major public health strategies. Note that many of these advances cross-fertilize: for example, advances in virus testing and antibody testing will drive data-based prevention efforts.

Five major public health strategies are underway to bring Covid-19 under control and to contain the spread of SARS-CoV-2.
These strategies arise from things we can control based on the things that we know at any given moment. But what about the things we can’t control and don’t yet know?

The biology of the virus and how it interacts with our bodies is what it is, so we should seek to understand it as thoroughly as possible. How long any immunity gained from prior infection lasts—and indeed whether people develop meaningful immunity at all after infection—are open questions urgently in need of greater clarity. Similarly, right now it’s important to focus on understanding rather than making assumptions about environmental factors like seasonality.

But the biggest question on everyone’s lips is, “When?” When will we see therapeutic progress against Covid-19? And when will life get “back to normal”? There are lots of models out there on the internet; which of those models are right? The simple answer is “none of them.” That’s right—it’s almost certain that every model you’ve seen is wrong in at least one detail, if not all of them. But modeling is meant to be a tool for deeper thinking, a way to run mental (and computational) experiments before—and while—taking action. As George E. P. Box famously wrote in 1976, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”

Here, we’re seeking useful insights, as opposed to exact predictions, which is why we’re pulling back from quantitative details to get at the mindsets that will support agency and hope. To that end, I’ve been putting together timelines that I believe will yield useful expectations for the next year or two—and asking how optimistic I need to be in order to believe a particular timeline.

For a moderately optimistic scenario to be relevant, breakthroughs in science and technology come at paces expected based on previous efforts and assumptions that turn out to be basically correct; accessibility of those breakthroughs increases at a reasonable pace; regulation achieves its desired effects, without major surprises; and compliance with regulations is reasonably high.

In contrast, if I’m being highly optimistic, breakthroughs in science and technology and their accessibility come more quickly than they ever have before; regulation is evidence-based and successful in the first try or two; and compliance with those regulations is high and uniform. If I’m feeling not-so-optimistic, then I anticipate serious setbacks to breakthroughs and accessibility (with the overturning of many important assumptions), repeated failure of regulations to achieve their desired outcomes, and low compliance with those regulations.

The following scenarios outline the things that need to happen in the fight against Covid-19, when I expect to see them, and how confident I feel in those expectations. They focus on North America and Europe because there are data missing about China’s 2019 outbreak and other regions are still early in their outbreaks. Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind throughout: We know more today than we did yesterday, but we still have much to learn. New knowledge derived from greater study and debate will almost certainly inspire ongoing course corrections.

As you dive into the scenarios below, practice these three mindset shifts. First, defeating Covid-19 will be a marathon, not a sprint. We shouldn’t expect life to look like 2019 for the next year or two—if ever. As Ed Yong wrote recently in The Atlantic, “There won’t be an obvious moment when everything is under control and regular life can safely resume.” Second, remember that you have important things to do for at least a year. And third, we are all in this together. There is no “us” and “them.” We must all be alert, responsive, generous, and strong throughout 2020 and 2021—and willing to throw away our assumptions when scientific evidence invalidates them.

The Middle Way: Moderate Optimism
Let’s start with the case in which I have the most confidence: moderate optimism.

This timeline considers milestones through late 2021, the earliest that I believe vaccines will become available. The “normal” timeline for developing a vaccine for diseases like seasonal flu is 18 months, which leads to my projection that we could potentially have vaccines as soon as 18 months from the first quarter of 2020. While Melinda Gates agrees with that projection, others (including AI) believe that 3 to 5 years is far more realistic, based on past vaccine development and the need to test safety and efficacy in humans. However, repurposing existing vaccines against other diseases—or piggybacking off clever synthetic platforms—could lead to vaccines being available sooner. I tried to balance these considerations for this moderately optimistic scenario. Either way, deploying vaccines at the end of 2021 is probably much later than you may have been led to believe by the hype engine. Again, if you take away only one message from this article, remember that the fight against Covid-19 is a marathon, not a sprint.

Here, I’ve visualized a moderately optimistic scenario as a baseline. Think of these timelines as living guides, as opposed to exact predictions. There are still many unknowns. More or less optimistic views (see below) and new information could shift these timelines forward or back and change the details of the strategies.
Based on current data, I expect that the first wave of Covid-19 cases (where we are now) will continue to subside in many areas, leading governments to ease restrictions in an effort to get people back to work. We’re already seeing movement in that direction, with a variety of benchmarks and changes at state and country levels around the world. But depending on the details of the changes, easing restrictions will probably cause a second wave of sickness (see Germany and Singapore), which should lead governments to reimpose at least some restrictions.

In tandem, therapeutic efforts will be transitioning from emergency treatments to treatments that have been approved based on safety and efficacy data in clinical trials. In a moderately optimistic scenario, assuming clinical trials currently underway yield at least a few positive results, this shift to mostly approved therapies could happen as early as the third or fourth quarter of this year and continue from there. One approval that should come rather quickly is for plasma therapies, in which the blood from people who have recovered from Covid-19 is used as a source of antibodies for people who are currently sick.

Companies around the world are working on both viral and antibody testing, focusing on speed, accuracy, reliability, and wide accessibility. While these tests are currently being run in hospitals and research laboratories, at-home testing is a critical component of the mass testing we’ll need to keep viral spread in check. These are needed to minimize the impact of asymptomatic cases, test the assumption that infection yields resistance to subsequent infection (and whether it lasts), and construct potential immunity passports if this assumption holds. Testing is also needed for contact tracing efforts to prevent further spread and get people back to public life. Finally, it’s crucial to our fundamental understanding of the biology of SARS-CoV-2 and Covid-19.

We need tests that are very reliable, both in the clinic and at home. So, don’t go buying any at-home test kits just yet, even if you find them online. Wait for reliable test kits and deeper understanding of how a test result translates to everyday realities. If we’re moderately optimistic, in-clinic testing will rapidly expand this quarter and/or next, with the possibility of broadly available, high-quality at-home sampling (and perhaps even analysis) thereafter.

Note that testing is not likely to be a “one-and-done” endeavor, as a person’s infection and immunity status change over time. Expect to be testing yourself—and your family—often as we move later into 2020.

Testing data are also going to inform distancing requirements at the country and local levels. In this scenario, restrictions—at some level of stringency—could persist at least through the end of 2020, as most countries are way behind the curve on testing (Iceland is an informative exception). Governments will likely continue to ask citizens to work from home if at all possible; to wear masks or face coverings in public; to employ heightened hygiene and social distancing in workplaces; and to restrict travel and social gatherings. So while it’s likely we’ll be eating in local restaurants again in 2020 in this scenario, at least for a little while, it’s not likely we’ll be heading to big concerts any time soon.

The Extremes: High and Low Optimism
How would high and low levels of optimism change our moderately optimistic timeline? The milestones are the same, but the time required to achieve them is shorter or longer, respectively. Quantifying these shifts is less important than acknowledging and incorporating a range of possibilities into our view. It pays to pay attention to our bias. Here are a few examples of reasonable possibilities that could shift the moderately optimistic timeline.

When vaccines become available
Vaccine repurposing could shorten the time for vaccines to become available; today, many vaccine candidates are in various stages of testing. On the other hand, difficulties in manufacture and distribution, or faster-than-expected mutation of SARS-CoV-2, could slow vaccine development. Given what we know now, I am not strongly concerned about either of these possibilities—drug companies are rapidly expanding their capabilities, and viral mutation isn’t an urgent concern at this time based on sequencing data—but they could happen.

At first, governments will likely supply vaccines to essential workers such as healthcare workers, but it is essential that vaccines become widely available around the world as quickly and as safely as possible. Overall, I suggest a dose of skepticism when reading highly optimistic claims about a vaccine (or multiple vaccines) being available in 2020. Remember, a vaccine is a knockout punch, not a first line of defense for an outbreak.

When testing hits its stride
While I am confident that testing is a critical component of our response to Covid-19, reliability is incredibly important to testing for SARS-CoV-2 and for immunity to the disease, particularly at home. For an individual, a false negative (being told you don’t have antibodies when you really do) could be just as bad as a false positive (being told you do have antibodies when you really don’t). Those errors are compounded when governments are trying to make evidence-based policies for social and physical distancing.

If you’re highly optimistic, high-quality testing will ramp up quickly as companies and scientists innovate rapidly by cleverly combining multiple test modalities, digital signals, and cutting-edge tech like CRISPR. Pop-up testing labs could also take some pressure off hospitals and clinics.

If things don’t go well, reliability issues could hinder testing, manufacturing bottlenecks could limit availability, and both could hamstring efforts to control spread and ease restrictions. And if it turns out that immunity to Covid-19 isn’t working the way we assumed, then we must revisit our assumptions about our path(s) back to public life, as well as our vaccine-development strategies.

How quickly safe and effective treatments appear
Drug development is known to be long, costly, and fraught with failure. It’s not uncommon to see hope in a drug spike early only to be dashed later on down the road. With that in mind, the number of treatments currently under investigation is astonishing, as is the speed through which they’re proceeding through testing. Breakthroughs in a therapeutic area—for example in treating the seriously ill or in reducing viral spread after an infection takes hold—could motivate changes in the focus of distancing regulations.

While speed will save lives, we cannot overlook the importance of knowing a treatment’s efficacy (does it work against Covid-19?) and safety (does it make you sick in a different, or worse, way?). Repurposing drugs that have already been tested for other diseases is speeding innovation here, as is artificial intelligence.

Remarkable collaborations among governments and companies, large and small, are driving innovation in therapeutics and devices such as ventilators for treating the sick.

Whether government policies are effective and responsive
Those of us who have experienced lockdown are eager for it to be over. Businesses, economists, and governments are also eager to relieve the terrible pressure that is being exerted on the global economy. However, lifting restrictions will almost certainly lead to a resurgence in sickness.

Here, the future is hard to model because there are many, many factors at play, and at play differently in different places—including the extent to which individuals actually comply with regulations.

Reliable testing—both in the clinic and at home—is crucial to designing and implementing restrictions, monitoring their effectiveness, and updating them; delays in reliable testing could seriously hamper this design cycle. Lack of trust in governments and/or companies could also suppress uptake. That said, systems are already in place for contact tracing in East Asia. Other governments could learn important lessons, but must also earn—and keep—their citizens’ trust.

Expect to see restrictions descend and then lift in response to changes in the number of Covid-19 cases and in the effectiveness of our prevention strategies. Also expect country-specific and perhaps even area-specific responses that differ from each other. The benefit of this approach? Governments around the world are running perhaps hundreds of real-time experiments and design cycles in balancing health and the economy, and we can learn from the results.

A Way Out
As Jeremy Farrar, head of the Wellcome Trust, told Science magazine, “Science is the exit strategy.” Some of our greatest technological assistance is coming from artificial intelligence, digital tools for collaboration, and advances in biotechnology.

Our exit strategy also needs to include empathy and future visioning—because in the midst of this crisis, we are breaking ground for a new, post-Covid future.

What do we want that future to look like? How will the hard choices we make now about data ethics impact the future of surveillance? Will we continue to embrace inclusiveness and mass collaboration? Perhaps most importantly, will we lay the foundation for successfully confronting future challenges? Whether we’re thinking about the next pandemic (and there will be others) or the cascade of catastrophes that climate change is bringing ever closer—it’s important to remember that we all have the power to become agents of that change.

Special thanks to Ola Kowalewski and Jason Dorrier for significant conversations.

Image Credit: Drew Beamer / Unsplash Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots