Is technology the cure we need?


NICK EICHER, HOST: Next up, technology and disease control. 

The coronavirus pandemic is the first in which technology is playing a major part in trying to get the disease under control. 

Officials in Israel are using cell phone location data to track patients. 

The authoritarian regime in China is going much further: using drones to track down people who are not following safety rules.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: These programs are only the beginning of the surveillance measures we could see in the coming years.

Joining us to talk about what’s on the horizon is Jason Thacker. He’s an expert on artificial intelligence and an associate research fellow at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Good morning, Jason.

JASON THACKER, GUEST: Good morning. Thank you for having me, Mary.

REICHARD: I’d like to start by talking about some of the technologies already in use that can and are helping health officials track diseases like COVID-19.

THACKER: Yeah, so, I mean, things from location tracking, places like Google and Facebook, they’re also able to share some of this anonymized data to be able to use by health officials to be able to see where hotspots are. I mean, there’s a company called Kinsa that produces thermometers and they’re actually digitally connected to kind of everything smart these days. And this company is actually able to track temperatures various places around the nation. And they can warn public health officials that they might have an outbreak coming. And so there’s lots of ways we can use this data for a good reason. But there’s also a lot of concern over increased uses of data and kind of reliance on that and what that could look like for personal liberties and personal privacy.

REICHARD: Mm-hm. I know some of that information is readily available right now. What are some of the new things tech companies are talking about doing?

THACKER: Yeah, obviously as this pandemic continues to kind of sweep across our nation and across the world, there are legitimate concerns of wanting to slow the spread of this disease.  Just this last week, Apple and Google announced a partnership, kind of a historic partnership, between two tech rivals of wanting to come together to develop what’s called “contract tracing,” which is where they’re using the Bluetooth capabilities of phones where people opt into these programs and they’re able to, if you come in track and say that I was diagnosed with COVID, you tell that to the system and then the system warns those who have come in contact with you over the last week or two that they need to either be tested or quarantine themselves. And so while that sounds really great for public health reasons and why this can help slow the spread, there’s obviously a lot of concerns about what type of data is being tracked, how is it being stored, who has access to it, and what is the future kind of implications of this level of tracking? Is this going to be something that’s only for the short term, or is this something that’s going to be more of a long-term staying solution? 

REICHARD: I’m wondering how else artificial intelligence is being used in the fight against the virus?

THACKER: Yeah, I mean, people are using artificial intelligence where they’re able to run simulations through DNA processing and antibody research and even vaccine development where they’re able to test things in the digital space and use these AI systems to process massive amounts of data to really speed up our ability to create vaccines or to create different types of treatments for those who are suffering from the virus. And even things like an online testing tool where you type in your different types of symptoms and the system is able to tell you, yes, it would be a good idea for you to be checked out or, no, it doesn’t sound like you have this virus. So, it’s really exciting the way that it can be used, but then also as thinking Christians, we need to be aware that there are always potential downfalls, there are always unintended consequences. And specifically in this pandemic season is we need to be really thoughtful about the level of data tracking and availability that this turning over of our personal privacy to companies and governments and being really thoughtful about those different types of situations. 

REICHARD: Well, I’m already exhausted by all the ways that my privacy’s been compromised. I’m thinking of the Equifax debacle, and a lot of these genetic testing companies, things like that. The small print doesn’t protect my privacy. And so you’ve already touched several times on how Christians should be thinking about this. What frame of thought should Christians have as we go forward into this brave new world?

THACKER: Yeah, I think some of the biggest things is to be aware of what we’re doing. Often we do provide a lot of consent for tracking and different types of data storage when we sign up for these devices. A lot of times people, we click through the “I agree” statements as quickly as possible, but maybe it’s worth—especially in this digital age and the age of AI—to slow down and to actually read and think about what kind of consent we’re turning over. But then also pushing our legislators to be really thoughtful about how we’re producing and developing and what types of ethical guidelines we should be using in using these tools. And then, two, is to be really involved and pushing forth that ethic of human dignity for all people because we do as Christians that all people are created in God’s image.

REICHARD: Jason Thacker is with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. He’s also recently released a book about artificial intelligence. It’s titled, The Age of AI. Thanks for joining us today, Jason!

THACKER: Thank you, Mary.


(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File) This March 19, 2018 file photo shows a Google app in Baltimore. 

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