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Andrew McAfee Discusses Digital Technology and Responses to COVID-19

March 31, 2020


 In this interview with the French financial daily, Les Echos, on March 27, MIT IDE co-director Andrew McAfee deciphers the impact of digital technologies on the current crisis, and the role they may play in the future.  

This interview by Benoît Georges was translated from French. The original can be found here.

You are a technology specialist and a renowned perspectivist. Could you have imagined a situation like the one we are experiencing today?

AM: Absolutely never. But other experts had. I do not believe that the coronavirus pandemic is what is called a “black swan,” a rare and impossible event to anticipate. Many people— experts in public health or disaster prevention — had predicted this type of pandemic, with the health and economic damage it would cause. Many people have been alerting us to a scenario like this for years, and we haven’t listened enough.

In your last book [“More from Less,” Scribner, 2019] you state that four elements are a source of optimism for the future of the planet: technology, capitalism, public awareness of the problems, and responsive governments. But faced with the coronavirus, these levers did not work…

AM: The biggest mistake was government response, especially in the West. We did not take the right measures at the right time. Many countries– Asians, on the contrary– have surmounted the worst moment of the pandemic and returned to normal: I see a textbook case of what a responsive government should be. I also think that public opinion has not been sufficient — we still see people who, in France or in the United States, continue to go out or congregate during the pandemic. Capitalism has not yet been able to provide the drugs and equipment that we need; the masks, gloves, devices, respirators, etc. 

The only area that worked properly, in my view, is technology. When you see how quickly people have switched to telework, and especially how scientists around the world are able to collaborate, to share their results and data, to use ultra-powerful tools, I am both very impressed and quite optimistic.

Beyond scientists, the technology is suddenly becoming essential to confined people…indisputably a good thing. Think about how various professionals can be so productive, even if they are forced to work at home. We have collaborative platforms like Slack, and videoconferencing tools like Zoom. We have at our disposal a wide range of robust tools well-suited to telecommuters. Imagine the same pandemic barely ten years ago; the situation would have been much worse.

We can make the same observation on our daily lives…

AM: Absolutely. Again, this would have been much worse ten years ago without a robust infrastructure for home delivery — that’s why you have to absolutely protect workers who are on the front line, those who deliver packages and meals to people confined at home. Today, you can continue to have access to goods and services, partly thanks to the tech companies.

Another use of technology escalating in the face of the pandemic is the ability to track people to avoid the spread. Is that desirable?

AM: Systems of this type pose real privacy issues. But, in a moment like this one, maybe we have to agree to give up some of our privacy for health reasons, if only for a limited time. The question of duration is crucial because when the government adopts new powers in times of crisis, it tends not to reinstate the old. You have to be very aware of this, and put up barriers from the start– for example, by deciding that these measures will expire automatically after 90 days. But I also believe that a global pandemic forces us to change our view on privacy: If a powerful technology allows us to track contagious people, to know where they went, and with whom they were in contact, then you have to use it  while in keeping in mind the danger of an Orwellian drift, “1984” style. I am a fierce defender of individual freedoms and privacy, but perhaps not in all circumstances.

You have written a lot about the new industrial revolution and automation. Will this crisis obliterate us? Will it change the way we produce?

AM: I see two consequences. Countries are going to want their local industry to produce the basic necessities in times of a health crisis, and to keep reserves of billions of masks, gloves, protective clothing, etc. But I don’t think each supply chain will become more local. In Asia, the economies of China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong proved that they can re-start very quick. Western economies are going have more trouble. I do not think that repatriation of all our production would make us more resilient.

Can automation be useful in the face of pandemics?

AM: Yes, especially in the case of telepresence robots for watching over warehouses and providing parcels. These are not autonomous robots because complete autonomy is still difficult to envision, but they could be machines that are remotely requested — for example, by confined workers or patients. More widely, I believe we will see more automation because in periods of recession, companies seeking to reduce costs by all means, including the cost of labor, will prevail. And we know that once lost, many jobs never come back and businesses do not revert to the previous situation.

What could a post-coronavirus economy?

AM: I think we could see the reversal of the trend of geographic concentration. For example, in wealthy countries, the last two decades have been marked by a growing economy, but with fewer companies in fewer cities. Until this pandemic, I saw no strength going in the opposite direction. I have changed myopinion, however. For an intellectual, there were many benefits of living in a big city: quality of life, things to do, and more exchanges with other people. During a pandemic like this this one, however, you no longer want to be where all the others are found. So it is possible that a significant portion of highly skilled workers may not choose to live in San Francisco, Paris, or New York, for the safety of their families, but also because they realize that they can be effective teleworkers.

Another concentration that has marked the last decades is that of wealth. In the U.S., we see that inequalities can make the health situation worse because people don’t have any choice but to travel, even if they are sick.

AM: That is true. I am not against income inequality in normal times, but I’m extremely shocked by unequal access to care during a pandemic. It is likely that in the United States, low-income people are the most severely affected. I think it’s not morally okay, and that it will increase anger, polarization of our society, and rebellion against the established order.

You show up often as an optimist. Are you still today?

AM: I am optimistic that this virus can be defeated. Look at what is happening in Asian countries: they have gone through a very difficult time, but they did the right thing and they got out. It is too early to say, but I think the European countries, with their more egalitarian models, can also get by while keeping the social fabric relatively intact. I am more worried about the United States, because of the health realities of our country.

I believe we will beat the pandemic because we have bright and tenacious people who will work hard to get there; because we have very high-level technologies, and because we see good decisions being made. But pandemics are very hard for optimists!