As we reflect on the progress of the pandemic that is affecting all our lives in some form, the questions begin. Did technology save or fail us? And will it save us yet?
Many people will say that technology failed us. It failed to predict the disease and its spread. It failed in modelling how far and when we should have been locked down, and it failed to predict when and how we should have come out of lockdown.
People will cite Google’s boast some years ago that the company could make flu a minor problem. By looking at search patterns for cures and treatments for flu and cross-indexing these against geography, we can see where it is spreading, and act accordingly.
The problem, this time, was presumably that everyone, everywhere, suddenly searched on the same thing, looking for protection, remedies and cures. So, the model predicted that it was already everywhere.
People will say that technology was a ‘fail’ in test and trace apps. Yet that is probably not fair either. The failure of test and trace apps is surely more about human nature than technology.
It is about the balance between health and wealth.
Some countries put health first – and rightly so. Many others put their economies first – possibly also rightly so.
For most people, the last thing they need is to be contacted to say that they were in a shop with someone who has tested positive. You must self-isolate for 10-14 days. For many, that is the difference between eating and not eating. Why would you play that game, why would you enter your details correctly if that was the risk? Even some extremely wealthy people will enter their contact details incorrectly, because they too do not want to be away from work, or they are obsessed about their civil liberties.
Technology may well save us (and its reputation) having arguably failed us in other ways, by producing a vaccine in an astonishingly short time frame. Never before has a vaccine been produced in anything less than years. Never before has the collaboration between scientists been so fruitful and never before has the sharing of ‘big data’ been so beneficial to everyone.
The argument as to whether technology saved or failed us will go on for some time. Perhaps the hype around search engines and the ability to predict trends was too much hype. Perhaps the sudden, global nature of the problem made prediction impossible.
It was certainly human nature that rendered test and trace in many countries impotent.
We should, however, acknowledge and applaud the astonishing feat of producing a vaccine in under a year. A vaccine which, if the data is accurate, will give us a much brighter 2021 than anyone could have predicted.
Even a search engine, big data or analytics.