Hacking for coronavirus needs more humility

Opinion by Nik Marda
April 11, 2020, 11:26 p.m.

As coronavirus ravages the world, technologists have found ways to help fight the pandemic. Some have built valuable new products, ranging from maps of case counts to clearinghouses that match hospitals with suppliers of personal protective equipment. Others have marshaled existing technologies like Google’s protein-folding AI and IBM’s Summit supercomputer to accelerate treatments for the virus. 

Specific leaders in the tech sector have also helped. Bill Gates, who has worked on pandemic prevention for many years, is supporting at-home coronavirus test kits developed by a partnership between scientists and public health officials. Mark Zuckerberg, who has taken coronavirus seriously since January, greenlighted new features on Facebook to promote information about the virus from authoritative sources.

However, other technologists are being unhelpful, or worse, outright harmful.

Elon Musk is one such example. The contrarian CEO of Tesla didn’t just tweet irresponsibly and peddle questionable “research” about potential treatments. He also defied an order from Alameda County to shut down the Tesla factory in Fremont because he personally felt the “coronavirus panic is dumb.” Two weeks later, Musk offered to send ventilators to hospitals in New York, but the machines he sent were actually BPAP machines designed to treat sleep apnea — far from perfect replacements for the ventilators that hospitals desperately need. Meanwhile, Musk’s offer to build ventilators at Tesla factories was panned by ventilator manufacturers because “the core technology of today’s ventilators … is fundamentally different from the manufacturing operations of car manufacturers.”

Musk isn’t the only technologist brandishing a holier-than-thou attitude toward coronavirus. In late March, product manager Aaron Ginn acted like his experience “driving rapid and viral adoption of technology products” made him qualified to analyze epidemiological data. Ginn concluded that the U.S. response was overblown and posted his shoddy analysis on Medium. After extensive pushback from infectious-disease expert Carl Bergstrom, Medium finally took down the article, but not before it garnered millions of views.

What differentiates technologists’ good efforts from dangerous ones? I believe the answer boils down to one trait: arrogance.

In fighting coronavirus, Gates and Zuckerberg are contributing in ways that support, not undermine, the work of experts. That’s humility. Meanwhile, Musk, Ginn and company seem to believe they’re qualified to analyze epidemiological data and build healthcare products without proper training or expertise. That’s arrogance.

This isn’t a new problem — Silicon Valley has been repeatedly criticized for its arrogance. At times, this hubris is entertaining, perhaps even a feature, not a bug. But when the Valley views its contributions through rose-colored spectacles, it filters out legitimate concerns behind new technological products and services. This idealism, embodied in Facebook’s old mantra “move fast and break things,” fuels a race to quickly create new products with limited concern for their broader social implications, while ensuing scandals like Cambridge Analytica demonstrate the need for more thoughtfulness. In his last letter to investors, Google co-founder Sergey Brin M.S. ’95 summarized this problem: “While I am optimistic about the potential to bring technology to bear on the greatest problems in the world, we are on a path that we must tread with deep responsibility, care and humility.”

Today, we are on a path we must tread with even deeper responsibility, care and humility. 

Coronavirus, in both scope and intensity, is unlike any other modern problem. Building a new product is already difficult under the normal pressures of Silicon Valley, where most startups fail. Within the realm of coronavirus, creating something new is even more difficult — we can’t “break things” when we’re dealing with human lives. There’s a slew of other issues too, such as privacy and equity, that require serious consideration. Despite these challenges, even if someone builds something valuable, public health officials would have to divert time and money to help scale these largely-untested products. As the host of a March in-person(!) coronavirus hackathon in Texas put it, “Nobody has acknowledged our work yet. They haven’t used it or shared it yet.”

If rapidly building solutions to tackle enormous problems sounds familiar, perhaps you remember Stanford’s response to campus hate crimes. The administration proposed a “Hacking Hate” event, where students had five hours to research and propose innovative ways to address racial hate and violence. In response, Jasmine Sun ’21 articulated how racism is a complicated, multi-pronged problem that can’t be solved by “hacking.” She proceeded to describe Silicon Valley’s saviorism problem, where “inexperienced innovators parachute into a community they don’t understand to build products that no one needs, claiming a resume line and virtue signaling along the way.”

I worry that some of Stanford’s multiple new classes and student-driven initiatives to fight coronavirus are falling into the same trap. For example, the Stanford COVID-19 Response Innovation Lab is pitching itself to students by saying that they have “an unprecedented opportunity to change lives and save the world by rapidly building and scaling high-impact ventures together to combat the pandemic.” I can’t help but notice the parallels between the aforementioned saviorism problem and a literal call to save the world.

While some technologists try to parachute into the world of pandemic mitigation, countless epidemiologists, virologists and public health officials have already mobilized. This bandwagoning risks diluting the expertise of actual experts — with potentially catastrophic consequences. For example, while the nation’s top medical experts are trying to shape evidence-based policies, President Donald Trump is reportedly listening to tech executives’ conspiracy theories about potential treatments. Even the president’s impulsive, dangerous obsession with the drug hydroxychloroquine has been traced back to research conducted by full-time cryptocurrency investors and popularized by tech executives.

Of course, it’s not just technologists who need a dose of humility. Many scientists, journalists and politicians have also demonstrated arrogance, and we should oppose that too. However, a crucial difference lies in the varied difficulty of spotting mistakes. Science, journalism and politics have developed robust institutions and standards for fact-checking claims, but tech relies on metrics like fundraising and popularity to determine what’s “good” and what’s “bad.” In a pandemic, this means we are ill-equipped to quickly stop data-driven analyses and products which seem legitimate to the broader public, but fall apart under scrutiny. As Bergstrom put it, “A form of authority gets imposed on a reader and we tend not to challenge data the way we’ve learned to challenge words.” 

With coronavirus, it’s easy to start contributing with technical skills, hard to verify if those contributions are helpful, and dangerous if those contributions are wrong. So how can we avoid these pitfalls while fulfilling our desire to help?

In the effort to limit the spread of coronavirus, the people on the ground — those who’ve been leading the fight against coronavirus for weeks — know what they need to be more effective. Let’s follow their lead. One way to do that is by joining the U.S. Digital Response, which screens volunteers and matches them to projects for federal, state and local governments. 

Additionally, this pandemic will also have far-reaching effects across society. We must start thinking about recovery efforts now, including from a technical angle. Let’s help build the human-centered safety net that we’ll desperately need in a post-coronavirus world. One way to do that is by serving a “tour of civic service,” helping to build and scale essential government systems.

There are many other things we can do that don’t require technical skills. We can care for our friends and family. We can check in on our elderly neighbors. We can join the Crisis Text Line to help people in distress during and after the pandemic. We can stand up for service workers who aren’t being paid during this crisis. We can support food banks and homeless shelters, including struggling ones in Silicon Valley’s backyard.

We can wash our hands and practice social distancing.

None of these ideas require building something from scratch, but all of them require a significant dose of humility. None of these ideas will single-handedly save the world, but all of them will help flatten the curve and rebuild a functioning society.

Today, we face a problem where numbers don’t represent ad revenues or active users. Rather, these numbers represent the lives of real people, with unique stories and grieving families. We owe it to them to proceed with the deepest sense of responsibility, care and humility.

Nik Marda ’21 is a M.S. candidate in computer science. 

Contact Nik Marda at nmarda ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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