Are we giving up our privacy in the middle of COVID-19?


Before 2020, most people had some reservations about the idea of robots and AI, taking on more significant roles in our everyday social life. These reservations rooted in terrifying visions of the future demonstrated in Sci-Fi movies that often portray robots with human-like characteristics. Yet, it doesn’t mean that there is no legitimate reason to be concerned about the advance of AI and robotics in society.

As a technology that amplifies human intelligence, artificial intelligence has the potential of helping civilization flourish like never before. From SIRI to self-driving cars, it is progressing rapidly with companies building intelligent systems, capable of handling any task that intelligent humans could perform, and most likely beat us at each of them.

There is no denying the benefits; yet, one must recognize the potential adverse outcomes, such as the invasion of privacy, discrimination, social grading, and manipulation. The bigger concern is that AI, which is programmed to do something beneficial, can develop a destructive method for achieving its goal.

Many of these concerns seem to be fading as governments and businesses seek AI technologies to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. There is a significant spike in the use of AI and robots to reduce direct human involvement amid the COVID-19 scare. As a contact-free alternative for human workers, robots have turned out to be game-changer in a pandemic.

We see the sales of robotic floor cleaners , quadcopter drone, and disinfecting robots, soaring as businesses replace human employees who cannot work due to social distancing guidelines. Besides, companies like Google and Apple are partnering with state and federal governments to develop apps for the digital screening of COVID-19 patients that involves the collection of data on their symptoms, travel, age, location, and underlying health conditions. Microsoft, Facebook, and many other startups are collecting similar information in partnerships with state governments and hospitals. By playing a pivotal role in preventing the spread of the disease in the middle of a crisis, technology keeps our society and economy running. But the question is where it is heading and what will be the impact in a post-pandemic world. Are we giving up privacy for safety in the middle of a pandemic?

Citizens across the globe are asked to allow surveillance of their daily movements and contacts to identify and isolate potentially infected patients swiftly. In Thailand and Hong Kong, for instance, the governments are forcing the people traveling from high-risk areas to use apps, electronic wristbands, and QR codes to monitor their movements during their 14 days quarantine.

What will happen to the sensitive health information, collected by governments and companies like Google and Facebook, after the pandemic fades? How do they intend to use and safeguard the information they collect? Will the relaxation of health privacy rules, justified during a crisis, place many lives at stake? What guarantee do we have that the businesses who have started using robots during lockdowns will go back and hire humans for the same job? These questions lead us to be more cautious when it comes to our willingness to embrace the expanding roles of robots and AI amid this crisis.

The changing face of normal

We are all longing for the life we had before we ever heard of COVID-19. While we expect the pandemic to end, it is unlikely that we will return to the normal we all remember. Some things will be the same, but many will never be!

Experts believe that as businesses and governments deploy more and more AI systems and robots to deal with issues created by the pandemic, they will have an increasing and permanent presence in our lives. We are going to get used to interacting and sharing public spaces with robots. Companies will have spent money on AI systems and robots to replace human workers, and they will have little incentive to rehire their employees to fill these roles. Many people may even grow to be more comfortable dealing with robots for a variety of functions.

At this point, very few people think about what it means to have robots and AI doing these jobs and serving these functions. The pandemic has made them a benefit, so we are willing to cast aside our reservations in exchange for a society that functions just a little bit more like the one we are used to.

Beyond job loss, there are significant privacy concerns with the ways AI and robots are being used to address some of the problems that have come with the pandemic. Businesses are proposing various systems that would collect data to help track and trace the spread of COVID-19. One example is a robotic dog being used in Singapore to help enforce social distancing in public parks. We could find similar surveillance robots deployed across the world. It seems harmless enough, but it doesn’t take much imagination to think of ways this robot could have expanded duties that would be cause for concern.

It is not that AI and robotics are dangerous. They can be very positive and useful during a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. Even with the potential benefits, we can’t afford to not think about the potential long-term fallout of adopting these technologies quickly and deploying them for such a wide array of purposes. We need to think about the privacy concerns that come with this technology, what we can do to mitigate job-loss and ways bias can potentially creep into AI systems. If we fail to make these considerations, we could be trading a short-term good for severe long-term consequences.