Innovation is thriving in the fight against Covid-19

Barriers to innovation and collaboration have been swept aside to meet the need to beat this disease.

Norman Lewis

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There is nothing like a crisis to concentrate the mind. And the Covid-19 catastrophe has certainly done this. It has speeded up latent trends and posed new questions. The issue of our technologically informed capacity to solve problems is just one example. What has been exposed is the chasm between yesterday’s technological solutions and what is needed to defeat the threat posed by Covid-19.

Silicon Valley and Big Tech in general have been largely irrelevant to the fight against Covid-19. Yes, they have given us Zoom and Facebook and other social-media apps to help many of us to work and communicate with friends and family. Netflix has helped keep many sane. Amazon has been different in that it has helped deliver food and other vitals throughout the lockdowns. iPads and smartphones have entertained and connected people in self-isolation. But the world’s biggest and richest tech companies have not and cannot manufacture any of the things that are most desperately needed right now: vaccines, diagnostic tests or the chemicals that support these.

Of course, a crisis like Covid-19 will necessarily pose new urgent questions that could not have been anticipated. New initiatives will rise to meet these. Pre-existing skills, knowledge, technologies and attitudes will always be the starting point of new problem-solving quests. Where and how we focus attention will, in part, be based on prior cultural assumptions and existing technologies, and also on the novelty of the problem to be solved. Companies like Facebook innovated in a different era and were addressing different imperatives. Their success is the source of their wealth today. Google and Apple – also born in different circumstances – have liquid reserves of billions of dollars, bigger than the GDPs of two-thirds of the world’s countries, as a result of their success. But solving the problems facing people, meeting needs and wants, trumps large bank balances.

Covid-19 has disrupted yesterday’s technological priorities and business models. Mitigating Covid-19 by providing the means of therapeutic communications to help people cope with isolation might appear to bolster Silicon Valley’s big tech companies, but it opens a division that threatens that future. The divide is between providing relief from Covid-19 versus defeating Covid-19.

It could be argued that both sides represent human problem-solving. Social media, after all, does solve (and foster) the needs of a culture that has become inwardly focused and egotistical, which is driven by the need for self-promotion and self-expression. These are human needs as defined by contemporary culture. But they are regressive and based on the here and now, not the future.

The intentionality behind trying to defeat Covid-19 is different: it is driven not by business models which opportunistically latch on to an existential crisis as a means of self-replication. No, it is driven by human needs, the need to survive – the impulse that has always driven human creativity. Social media are parasitic on the morbidity of Covid-19. Destroying this virus would remove the need for self-isolation and help counter the culture of fear that has driven large swathes of society to shelter behind closed doors. Efforts to defeat Covid-19, on the other hand, reveal mankind as a problem-solver, as an agent shaping society’s destiny, not a vulnerable and powerless object of a pernicious all-conquering nature.

This is why this is not a division of labour, but a division of intent. The disruption this represents to Silicon Valley should be welcomed because it portends new thinking and new imperatives. Unimagined solutions are being pushed while a more open attitude towards experimentation, risk-taking and side-stepping onerous and costly regulation is starting to emerge. Human needs are breaking down yesterday’s precautionary approaches.

For example, telemedicine – remote digital access to primary healthcare – has been around for at least 20 years, though with very little adoption. Covid-19 has changed that. Boston Children’s Hospital’s chief innovation officer, John Brownstein, reports that his hospital is now doing more virtual visits every day than it did over the entire preceding year. This has opened everyone’s eyes to how primary care can be leveraged in a far more productive way than previously imagined.

The Covid-19 pandemic has turned into a gateway for AI adoption in healthcare. Staff shortages and overwhelming patient loads have fast-tracked promising new technologies, particularly AI tools, that can speed triage. The experience of the Royal Bolton Hospital in the UK provides one example. Before the pandemic struck, a trial was planned which aimed to test whether a promising AI-based chest x-ray system could speed up diagnosis times. Patients would ordinarily have to wait up to six-hours or more for a specialist to examine their x-rays. After four months of reviews from multiple NHS committees and forums, the proposal was finally approved. But this planned trial never took place.

This changed as the pandemic struck. Regulatory procedures were jettisoned. Within weeks, the AI-based x-ray tool was retooled to detect Covid-19-induced pneumonia. Instead of a trial to double-check human diagnosis, the technology is now performing initial readings. The potential to speed up diagnosis is immense.

Even before the pandemic, AI in healthcare was booming. According to the British Journal of General Practice, in 2016 healthcare AI projects attracted more investment than AI projects within any other sector of the global economy. And now an AI healthcare arms race is well underway. Producers are developing new software and upgrading existing tools in the hope that the pandemic will fast-track deployment by side-stepping pre-coronavirus regulatory barriers.

This is a welcome development. In specific areas, AI tools like machine-learning have the capacity simultaneously to observe and rapidly process an almost limitless number of inputs beyond human capability. Furthermore, these systems are able to learn from each incremental case and can be exposed, within minutes, to more cases than a clinician could see in many lifetimes. AI-driven applications are able to outperform dermatologists at correctly classifying suspicious skin lesions. AI is also being trusted with tasks where experts often disagree, such as identifying pulmonary tuberculosis on chest radiographs.

The Covid-19 epidemic has confirmed what many suspected about AI in healthcare, but which had been difficult to prove: in areas with well-defined tasks, with clearly defined inputs and binary outputs that can be easily validated, the benefits are potentially immense. AI can offer invaluable support to doctors.

This would be a huge gain for humanity. What these innovations show is how the computing power that companies like Apple have developed could be used to solve real problems rather than being used simply to share pictures and videos or play games on computers and iPads. And this is just the start.

The Covid-19 crisis has also challenged some fundamental shibboleths of yesterday, like Intellectual Property Rights, regulatory barriers, governance rules, business models and government regulations. The global, collaborative drive to find a vaccine has been the standout example. Traditionally, fierce competition and fanatical concerns about proprietary Intellectual Property Rights have prevented collaboration and have, therefore, impeded the speed of new drug discoveries. Overregulation and precaution have added years and enormous costs to drug development, from trial to deployment. But Covid-19 has swept a lot of this away. The sharing of data, the removal of pay-walls behind which research papers have been hidden, has unleashed a new problem-solving effort never seen before in this field.

The relaxing of IP rights and regulatory strictures is also allowing a new lease of life for previously hyped technologies with potential like blockchain as a shared ledger. Over the past five years, enterprises across the globe have vetted the technology with thousands of proofs of concept. Live deployments have been slow because partners using blockchain as a shared ledger have to agree on IP rights, governance and business models, while government regulations have also impeded its widespread use.

Covid-19 has revealed endemic weaknesses in supply chains, and the inability to deploy resources where they are most needed. Difficulties in capturing and sharing the data needed to make rapid decisions in managing it have also been exposed. But ‘Cometh the hour, cometh the blockchain’. Blockchain solutions that have been under development for years have been repurposed and unleashed to address these challenges.

Rapid Medical Parts is one such example. The company was created in March 2020 by Colonel James Allen Regenor. In 2013, Regenor built a blockchain-powered platform for buying and selling traceable 3D-printed parts and printing instructions. He founded a company VeriTX in 2019 to bring the platform to market. The company built the platform to enable a decentralised manufacturing process in which customers can order and print parts – say, for medical devices – for use where and when they need them. The blockchain ensures tamper-proof design and printing instructions.

When Covid-19 struck, Regenor struck back with Rapid Medical Parts: in 12 days the Pentagon awarded his company a contract for converting an abundant supply of sleep-apnea machines into much-needed ventilators. The conversion requires additional parts that Rapid Medical Parts will print – and at a tenth of the cost of a new ventilator. The units should be in hospitals by mid-May.

It is early days, of course, and one needs to be cautious. The risk-averse culture which held back innovation for years before coronavirus, and which produced the tech giants of Silicon Valley, will not simply disappear in the quest to beat the virus. But the fact that the world has once again been reminded of the imperative of human needs as a driver of problem-solving does raise grounds for some optimism. Covid-19 has definitely opened a locked door. We need to ensure human ingenuity can escape before it is closed again in the post-Covid-19 era.

Dr Norman Lewis is a writer and managing director of Futures Diagnosis.

Picture by: Getty.

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