Technology often has inherent limitations

All sorts of frontier technologies have been widely used to fight against COVID-19. A good lesson learned by using various technologies during the pandemic is that technology can help the most only when we understand its limitations.

An inter-governmental meeting at ESCAP in August showcased how countries have deployed technologies during the pandemic. Using artificial intelligence (AI) as an example, AI has showed its usefulness in developing much needed medical products and services like a diagnostic kit developed within a month in the Republic of Korea.

On the other hand, AI is still perceived as weak in “human” factors such as showing empathy and having conversations with people. In this connection, chatbots launched to deal with COVID-19 related concerns may have serious limitations. Indeed, the need for unique response mapping, complex contextualization and dynamic, human-guided validation of content in dealing with questions had been well studied by ESCAP and Google before the start of the pandemic.

Other widely used technologies during the pandemic are those enabling contact tracing. Their key strength is that they can greatly empower health authorities to quickly identify the possible groups of people (clusters) who may have been in contact with an infected individual.

However, this technology also has some limitations. The virus is transmitted in various manners, arguably still unclear even to medical professionals. This means that the technology, including AI, cannot be “taught” to pick all possible linkages between those who are infected and their contacts who may or may not get infected. Therefore, application of such technology must be supplemented by other manual tracing methods.

Policy implications

These examples show that technologies often have their own inherent weaknesses, with two key policy implications.

First, only if governments and the public understand the limitations of a technology can they manage the expectations on what technology can and cannot deliver. For contact-tracing apps, no one should expect that the app would detect all infections correctly. Realistically, the app is expected to help identify possible groups of people who may be infected for any further investigation. This is not saying that the technology is not important. It is. Identifying every single case as quickly as possible may without a doubt save lives.

Second, measures must be taken to overcome the weaknesses of technology. Again, using contact-tracing apps as an example, experiences show that the Republic of Korea and Singapore – despite both countries launching contact-tracing apps – have taken complementary measures to assemble a complete contact map of a person through interviews, business surveillance camera footage, digital signatures and electronic records of credit card transactions. In the case of AI-powered chatbots, a country may decide to set up an information portal and train workers to answer COVID-19 related calls rather than deploying chatbots. For example, Bangladesh set up an information portal on COVID-19 and launched the Doctor Pool App, which enabled more than 4,500 trained physicians to answer the COVID-19 related questions through the helpline.

Moving forward in a regional context

As COVID-19 does not respect borders, a pertinent question is what if a country – especially a developing or least developed one – does not have access to the needed technology?

There is no quick-fix solution. Developing or even adopting a technology for a small or least developed country is not an easy task. Furthermore, even if a technological blueprint is available, a small country may not have the equipment, inputs or human capacity to produce the required medical products. In such a case, to make medical products available and affordable in emergencies may only happen through trade channels or support from development partners.

In the medium- to long-term, enhancing the technological capacity of small or poor countries is crucial to reducing technology gaps. In this time of crisis, the pandemic has stimulated collaboration in technology development. The COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund for joint research and procurement set up by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), together with China, Japan and the Republic of Korea, is an example of research collaboration to enhance technology capacities of developing countries. The key issue is ensuring that such collaboration is not one-off and the countries in the region would build on the momentum to strengthen such cooperation.

At present, the battle against the pandemic is still ongoing in the region and globally. By no means can the virus be beaten easily. Perhaps there is even a steeper road to climb out of the economic and social hole most had fallen into. But, technologies, with all their weaknesses and limitations, do give people everywhere a better fighting chance against the virus. Technology remains one’s best friend.

This article was written by Tengfei Wang, Economic Affairs Officer; Jonathan Wong, Chief of Technology & Innovation; and Mia Mikic, Director, Trade Investment and Innovation Division. It was originally published on UN ESCAP’s website.