What will it take for humanity to fully understand tech?

The failure of the coronavirus contact-tracing system, due to limits set by an old Excel format, demonstrates a failure of technology to cope with human reliance

Disruption has stormed into our lives without exception this year. The world is terrorised by a mysterious threat, and we’re in desperate need of answers.

As the scientists work day after day to concoct a vaccine, the rest of us are on damage control. To minimise the effect of the disruption on our daily lives, we need to gather our resources, gain a bird’s eye view of the situation, and find the best route out. So, what was to be our guiding light?

Not just any Excel spreadsheet – one using a file format invented 33 years ago. And one which cut off 16,000 case results due to a basic design feature, massively underestimating Covid-19 cases at a pivotal point in the UK’s second wave.

It can be easy to get political over this situation but, in truth, this is demonstrative of a far more worrying international trend that Covid-19 has revealed. Tech has failed to cope. Our international, full-scale stress test has us in over our heads, and that’s unnerving. All of society’s confidence in smartphones, drones, voice-activated assistants and smart doorbells is hiding the truth: when it comes to real, revolutionary technologies that will benefit us all, we have no idea what we’re doing.

We have got so used to technology solving most of our problems – GPS finding where we should be, Google finding us the answers, even Tinder finding us a date – that the expectations weighing on technology’s role in handling the Covid-19 crisis were heavy and palpable. The world indeed had breath that was bated. 

But, no, the machines haven’t saved us. The robots didn’t take care of the sick. The algorithms didn’t help the most vulnerable. The solutions have been human and, in many ways, basic. To avoid getting sick:

  • We have been staying at home. 
  • We have been keeping two metres away from each other. 
  • We have been avoiding public transport. 
  • We have been wearing masks. 
  • We have been washing our hands

Technology proving itself

Some technologies have proven themselves. Video conferencing has allowed us to keep our communities together even while we are apart, and the cloud has helped many organisations to work from home without a hitch.

But the virus is still in control. When it comes to mustering the ingenuity, innovation and drive to see off the disruption, it’s been people who have risen to the occasion. Key workers, up and down the country, have automatically jumped up to care for those who are sick. They have programmed themselves to work overtime every day, and keyed into the needs of the vulnerable. They have been the steady code keeping the country going. 

So, where does that leave people like me? The data scientists, the academics, the engineers, the IT specialists? Where have they been during this pandemic?    

Here is the truth: technology is able to help us fight off challenges as big and global as a health emergency. It is able to manage millions of patient records, and it won’t lose them. The technology is there: the artificial intelligence and the machine learning, the analytical tools, the scientists and engineers. There are pockets of expertise to be found all over the globe. The best scientific minds have been working on potential solutions and the work they have done has been nothing short of remarkable. 

The issue is this advanced technology has not been deployed well. In many cases, including some parts of the UK government, the tech hasn’t even made it out of the box. It’s sitting at the bottom of a long list of innovation priorities.

If there is one lesson learned, it’s that innovation isn’t merely a demonstration of scientific progress. It’s needed to support our societies, our vulnerable communities, and our planet. We must all come together to figure out how to make this technology work for everyone. A fragmented, siloed, compartmentalised approach just will not cut it in the face of global threats.

Read more about tech innovation

  • IT has always strived to align with the business, but recent research has found that users are struggling to take on tech innovations.
  • Is IT innovative? Would a tech executive scrap an idea that took months to develop, and start afresh? True innovation requires a culture change.

For this to happen there needs to be better deployment of the already available (and highly capable) technology at a national and even organisational level. We know that more than half of all analytical models don’t make it into production. And organisations already recognised before the pandemic the need for digital transformation, so that data and analytics are used to inform as many decisions as possible, in government, business and beyond. No longer will so many decisions be down to gut instinct alone.

They can be more informed, their progression projected, and the goals made more achievable. Organisations must make changes to understand, value, and deploy technologies which will ultimately see them achieve the level of digital maturity they believe they have already met. 

Many will dwell upon how technology has gone wrong during the Covid-19 crisis, but we should be inspired by what has worked. Hard work, ingenuity and ethics has been at the forefront of the human response on the front lines. By working alongside intelligent technologies which reflect these sentiments, humanity could double down on its protection of people and the economy.

This collaboration of humanity and tech can only be achieved if communities across science, tech, business and government come together.

Iain Brown is head of data science, SAS UK & Ireland

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