COVID-19 waits for no one, and the speed of its spread has forced the world to act with unprecedented haste. From world governments to individual households, everyone has suddenly had to scrap plans, make new ones, and then try to hang on to some kind of new normal as the pandemic causes more unexpected and rapid shifts.
In the tech world, watching everyone move so fast has been quite a sight. As I wrote a few weeks ago, there’s been a digital flotilla of tech people focusing on, and turning their expertise toward, 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 answer people’s COVID-19 questions and even triage symptoms. There’s been an explosion of 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 claim to help medical providers diagnose COVID-19. Pitches for just about any company, product, or service that could conceivably be related to remote work have come our way.
There are also uplifting pitches about how this or that company is giving away its product or service for free, adapting it for a selfless purpose to help people in the wake of job losses and health scares, or marshaling resources to perform much-needed research.
It truly is encouraging, and at times downright inspiring, to see the wealth of new tools and techniques to track, prevent, treat, and in general fight COVID-19.
But finding the best parts and pieces amidst the unrelenting noise is a daily — if not hourly — challenge. As with all technology, hasty execution often invites privacy issues or poor security, like those Zoom has experienced even as its daily active user numbers (DAUs) have reached the stratosphere. Companies can also suddenly bump into regulatory hurdles or interoperability issues. (Fortunately, rapid cooperation between governments, researchers, and tech companies, and even between 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? When is it both? It’s often hard to tell — and one should generally be suspicious any time a for-profit company proclaims altruism — but it’s even more difficult to discern amid the cacophony. 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 change overwhelmingly quickly, it’s usually a sign that we need more focus — but that may be impossible in this climate. Taking a broad example, the Gates Foundation is funding manufacturing for multiple potential vaccine trials at once because, Bill Gates said in an interview with Trevor Noah on The Daily Show, there’s no time to evaluate which vaccine has the greatest likelihood of success. Usually, a couple of the most promising vaccines would emerge from trials and then the foundation would throw its financial support behind manufacturing the best ones. Instead, it’s planning to “waste” a few billion dollars in the name of urgency.
This is a worldwide sprint and a marathon at the same time, and it can be tough to assimilate all the necessary information — or in our case, to sift through the raft of news and analysis stories that come our way. But finding the signal through the noise is a skill we all have to acquire now, because combatting this global pandemic is the greatest challenge any of us has faced, and it won’t wait for us to catch up.