Silicon Valley takes on the virus


Silicon Valley’s preferred model of innovation — iterate fast, scale up rapidly — has met an adversary it can’t outrace.

The Sars-Cov-2 virus moves even faster and, in some places, has hit an exponential growth curve. As the tech industry rushes to make a dent in this public health crisis, it is facing a test of some of its most cherished ways of doing business — as well as its relationship with customers and users around the world.

The can-do spirit and creativity unleashed by the public health crisis has certainly been heart-warming. Social media sites and mobile app stores, the open platforms on which crowdsourced innovation thrive, are awash with ideas.

The Facebook page for Open Source Covid-19 Medical Supplies, for instance, has brought an outpouring of designs for essential medical gear. Much of it is protective equipment for people in the front lines of the battle against the virus, to be produced on home 3D printers close to where it is most needed.

Ad hoc alliances are being formed to elevate makeshift designs like these into more robust supply lines. Carbon, a San Francisco-based 3D printing company, is trying to harness the customers who have installed 1,000 of its industrial-grade machines.

Among its designs is a swab for coronavirus tests that can be produced from the high-grade resin that used in dental labs. Ellen Kullman, the company’s chief executive, said more than 300 people joined a webinar this week to learn how to turn 3D printing machines to use for this and other designs.

Protective gear and testing equipment are in short supply, and some lives will undoubtedly be saved by initiatives like this. But doing anything at a scale that will bring a real flattening in the Covid-19 morbidity — and mortality — curves is a different matter.

Sometimes, only government will do. Centralised authorities are needed to pick the best ideas to back, provide validation and certification, and command the resources on a scale that will make a real difference. Silicon Valley traces its origins to a close relationship with government — specifically, the defence build-up during the cold war. A series of similarly tight public/private partnerships, needed to deal with the public health emergency, will test the Valley’s ability to meet a serious public need, without abandoning the methods and values it holds dear.

The first results of this new spirit of co-operation have probably been clearest in the information realm — specifically, when it comes to the collection and dissemination of reliable information about the nature and spread of the virus, and ways to limit the risks.

App Stores, for instance, were designed to act as open platforms for anyone with a bright idea. But a search in Google’s Play store for anything coronavirus-related offers only a link to the World Health Organisation, along with apps from the Centers for Disease Control and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Apple’s App Store is only slightly less restrictive, letting through a handful of vetted apps from medical researchers for tracking coronavirus symptoms.

One of the most valuable locations on the internet, the Google homepage, now acts as a quasi-public service announcement, its single outbound link connecting to a trove of official coronavirus information.

Searches for anything related to the pandemic bring special advice boxes, with most links leading back to the CDC and WHO. A company that rose to prominence by finding relevance in the “long tail” of the internet has defaulted, at a time of global crisis, to being a conduit for government-generated information and advice.

This highlights just how serious a test the tech industry faces as it aligns itself with government to solve the current crisis, while at the same time defending its values and protecting user rights such as privacy and freedom of speech.

The very nature of a pervasive health scare makes this hard. Suppressing the spread of Covid-19 has forced a limitation of basic freedoms — though Western governments have tried to do this through social pressure rather than coercion.

The next phase, when it comes, is likely to involve attempts to partially reopen the economy while still regulating individual movement. As China’s successful efforts to limit renewed outbreaks of the virus have shown, this is likely to require collecting information about individuals thought to pose a risk, such as where they have been and who they have had contact with. For the big tech platforms, stuffed with this kind of personal data, this could pose the biggest challenge.