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How Can Tech Step Up for Humanity?

Tristan Harris and Aza Raskin of the Center for Humane Technology have penned a Medium post in which they pose the radical question, “How can tech step up for humanity?” They’re mostly thinking about social media platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, which have largely restricted themselves to simple attempts to provide reliable information and weed out actively harmful posts. Those are positive steps, of course.

Center for Humane Technology

But mere information will always struggle against the many insidious ways in which social media platforms are used to persuade and manipulate users. Just look at the reports from the UK of people torching cell towers because of insane conspiracy theories that claim 5G wireless is somehow responsible for the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. Deleting such posts would be helpful, but even more so would be to change the minds of the would-be arsonists.

Harris and Raskin suggest various ways that social media platforms could employ commonly used persuasion principles to accelerate the kinds of behavior necessary to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Give their thoughts a read and chime in—what other ways could these platforms benefit the public health at a time when it’s so critical?

Similarly, outside the social media space, major tech companies like Apple (see Tim Cook’s video), Google, and Microsoft have focused on donating money and supplies to support public healthcare efforts, helping distribute basic information, and keeping their systems running through traffic increases of 10 to 20 times normal. That’s all good, but is it really putting our best and brightest tech minds where they could have the most impact? What would you do if you were in charge of one of these tech giants?

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Comments About How Can Tech Step Up for Humanity?

Notable Replies

  1. I would definitely want big tech companies to do everything possible to support the doctors and nurses on the front lines of this battle against covid-19. Next, I would appreciate support for preventing the spread of the disease through broadly available testing and effective masks to reduce the spread of the disease and protect employees who make food available for the rest of us.

  2. Those are absolutely great, positive things to do, but any large company could do that. What is that the likes of Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Twitter could do that Boeing, Ford, or General Electric couldn’t do?

    For instance, could anonymous data from Apple COVID-19 Screening Tool be used to provide a historical heat map of public places where you could have been infected? Could there be ways of using the sensor data from an Apple Watch to identify potential infections? I would think it could identify coughing, for instance, and if not temperature, at least an elevated heart rate that might suggest fever.

  3. a Javascript engine that compiles to Cobol, so programmers familiar with modern languages could more easily work on legacy systems…

  4. Though it’s not an AI screening tool, Apple has designed, sourced and distributed millions of face masks, with medical grade shields and masks to come. Salesforce sent masks to NY State, and Tesla is working on medical grade masks:

  5. Harris and Raskin suggest various ways that social media platforms could employ commonly used persuasion principles to accelerate the kinds of behavior necessary to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

    Ahh, no! This is spreading someone’s opinion of what is right to do, whether it actually is right or not. Just think, for example, of dictatorships that control the media and only allow things to be published if they support the current regime’s ideology. There is enough false stuff being spread by people in high places - outright lies in many cases - that you would not want people being “persuaded” that it is correct.

    What is “good” is subjective. What is “true” is factual, and can be distinguished easily from what is false

  6. If you have been keeping up, most of these problems aren’t particularly unprecedented and they already had solutions in place. But all of the solutions were unfunded. As a health care worker, I see insane amounts of money going to such useful tech solutions as getting unhealthy food delivered right to your door. But let’s look at kidney failure - all the tech is complete so that you could have a wearable artificial kidney - the problem is that the equipment is the size of an old time PC from the 1980’s. It needs to be the size of an iPhone. If we want to wait another 30 years, we probably can get there. But money would speed this up. Of course there is no profit in making vaccines for viruses that caused the last epidemic or stockpiling supplies or even trying to make supply chains for life-saving medications and devices as robust as toilet paper. And it is true, that bio-tech is riddled with failure, sluggish fruition and even some fraud. Biotech represents about 15% of venture capital and you get what you pay for.

  7. Tonya and I were talking more about this last night, and from the perspective of runners, one way that Strava could employ its technology to aid in reducing the spread of COVID-19 would be to use its historical heatmap data about where people run to help you pick a route and time such that you’d be less likely to be meeting other people while on the run.

    Similarly, Google Maps can warn you of traffic jams while driving, so perhaps it could provide a real-time graphical report on how busy necessary public spaces like grocery stores and pharmacies are so you could decide when would be a sensible time to go.

  8. I’m not sure about Google Maps on iOS (don’t use it there), but does show, at least around the Bay Area, when people tend to frequent a specific store or restaurant.

  9. The one thing social media outlets are fighting hard not to take on is the social responsibility we expect from our publishers and media outlets. This is broadly Europe’s contention, this is simply 21st century media, it needs to regard itself as part of the pillars of society as opposed to some empty transparent vessel for everyone’s thoughts. We have regulated speech and libel and slander laws on this side of the Atlantic, which even European users of the internet frequently forget, thinking that they can say anything. The freedom of speech so defended in the US does not exist anywhere else so far as I know, it’s a shame it’s used to such negative ends on occasion.

    But beyond laws, beyond the existing legislative frameworks across the world, It’s refreshing to think that the engagement Adam speaks of could be embraced more fully. That companies could take a stand for science and fact, for best practice, for the advice of experts.

    Apple have stood for civil rights, have stood for gender and marriage equality, indeed they make masks and disseminate their Covid-19 diagnostic app. The decision to do the app I thought was interesting, likely a decision to both stop apps on the app store tackling the topic (which would be a minefield) and still address it somehow. More of this would be welcome. It is the nonsense that underway on Facebook and WhatsApp which needs curtailing, correction and highlighting as incorrect. Call it censorship or call it public duty, but it’s needed.

  10. Cool, I didn’t realize that. So that’s a good piece of advice that people may not know anyway.

    A lovely sentiment, thank you!

  11. Brad Templeton (a major guy in the history of the Internet and currently an expert in robocars), has a post that touches on this topic:

    Privacy-protecting contact tracing

    Android and iOS would be updated to support an emergency contact tracing mode, which would stay on until June, and then be disabled unless renewed by emergency law. The protocol would be designed to be privacy protecting. Security experts are working on such protocols. An example of a possible protocol would be to have each phone transmit a different seemingly random token by broadcast Bluetooth every so often. Other phones would pick up and record these tokens. There would be no way to correlate them.

    If you were found to be infected, you would publish your list of tokens to a database. Other phones could check this database from time to time to see if they have stored any of them, indicating they were close to the infected person. (Signal strength would be recorded with the token.) Having several tokens would indicate you were in proximity for more than a brief time. (You don’t want to trigger if you just passed somebody on the sidewalk.) If so, you would isolate and make sure to do testing. If you had symptoms you would publish provisionally, then fully (or revoking) after getting results.

    The OS update would be applied to as many old phones as possible. Those old phones (sitting in closets mostly) would be updated and given to those who don’t carry a smartphone.

  12. With no evidence, I assumed store or restaurant data was historical information. While better than nothing, it is not as good as real-time info, like I believe is provided for traffic.

  13. The first article of the US Constitution includes that no law “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press” shall ever be established. It was, and still is, very revolutionary. But US laws do protect people from crime and libel (and you are correct that the definition of libel here is much looser). By positioning themselves as platform, Facebook gets away with what publishers cannot. But what I see as different is that AFAIK, platforms like Hyde Park Corner do not accept advertising. And I wish the US’ interpretation of Facebook’s responsibilities were more like the EU’s.

  14. Given the current state of our media…responsibility is pretty far from what they care about. The WSJ is about the only balanced reporting we get these days…all the rest spin whatever it to their political leaning…and that is both sides…not playing favorites here.

    I is very hard to find any news that was “that’s the way it is” back in Cronkite’s day…I don’t know what his leanings were before retirement but afterward he went pretty far left, not out to Sanders and Warren land…but his political bias either way never came through in his broadcasts. Not so today…

  15. There must be a way for Apple and Google to anonymise and gather the various sources of data that indicate mobility and clustering. Heavens, even collaborate on it. And give that information so whatever resources, preventative or palliative can be directed to where it’s needed.

  16. Adam, this is kind of a move from the sublime to the ridiculous, but I want TidBits-Talk to start another thread about how small developers and users can help. As an instance, I’m trying to develop an app that helps people in France obey the government’s rules on exercising. This is a very tiny contribution but if I can do it, it could be helpful and it’s just about all the technological contribution I could make. I personally may not succeed for various reasons, but I think the topic of “small folks’ contributions” might be worth discussing. What do you think?

  17. Go for it—start another thread in TidBITS Talk talking about this and asking for other ideas that small developers could do. You never know what will come of it!

  18. I am a long time user of the SnoreLab app on my iPhone.
    Is there a signature breathing sound caused by COVID-19 that could be detected with changes to the app? This could be correlated with other Apple Health information and used appropriately.
    I also like the Kinsa Health fever maps (NYT Article)and wonder if Apple Health data could be used in a similar way (user opt-in required)
    Thank you,

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