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Event Recap June 25, 2020

Can technology help build a shock-resistant planet?

By Henry Westerman

On June 17, 2020, Columbia University’s Earth Institute gathered a panel to discuss ideas for building a shock-resistant planet as part of the Sustain What series. Dr. Andrew Revkin moderated the event, which included panelists Dr. David Bray, Director of the Atlantic Council’s GeoTech Center, Dr. Diyva Chander, physician and professor of neuroscience at Singularity University, Robert S. Chen, Director of the Center for Earth Science Information (CIESIN) at Columbia University, Sandra Baptista, Senior Research Scientist at CIESIN, and Katindi Sivi Njonjo, a futurist at Nairobi-based Foresight for Development.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed how vulnerable we are to catastrophic disruptions, whether they be human-made crises or natural disasters. As the world struggles to emerge from the pandemic, many are looking to effectively predict and prevent the next crisis. Unfortunately, the panel noted that the data pointing to the next global disaster are already out there in the world. We just have yet to find them. Despite the enormous amounts of data produced by internet-enabled sensors around the planet, the individuals, institutions, and governments that gather this information still struggle to identify and address threats quickly enough. 

A planetary immune system

The panel envisioned a “global immune system” that would collate data from around the world into a massive database accessible from anywhere by anyone. The system would operate like the complex human immune system making use of various sources of internal data to identify threats before routing messages along a nervous system to delegate appropriate responses. 

With the data necessary for such a project mostly available today, the global immune system would simply have to connect existing networks, correct taxonomic inconsistencies, and distribute information to authorized analysts. The technology and expertise to operate such an apparatus is already in development. Panelists identified how tools such as block chain and artificial intelligence will prove integral to the construction and operation of the global immune system. As Dr. Bray pointed out in his article “We can build an immune system for the planet,” connecting humans or neural networks with data could identify pandemic agents before they spread. 

The panel explained that the major component preventing such a system’s creation is not infrastructure, technology, or gathering data. Rather, the lack of open data sharing between people, communities, and nations around the world is currently the biggest obstacle. Although establishing a global immune system would help identify and combat threats more quickly, convincing governments, companies, and individuals to share data that they are already collecting might prove too difficult a challenge.

Balancing protection and trust

The panel acknowledged the potential dangers of the sharing massive quantities of biometric data from around the world. The opportunity for foreign actors to gain insight into other countries’ populations might be too great a risk. For some, the mass collection of data, even if for a noble end, might seem too much like an authoritarian nightmare. Many might reasonably fear that the implementation of a global immune system would enable a more autocratic and oppressive use of technology. 

The panel also pointed out how the system’s solutions to global public health challenges might still fail to serve some communities. In particular, populations with limited access to the internet or cultural norms encouraging wariness of outsiders and government might be poorly situated to contribute to or benefit from a global immune system designed by Western technologists. Of course, without truly global coverage and participation in the system, the panel’s vision could not succeed. Thus, the panel emphasized that taking on a local character and including diverse developers and input are integral for the project’s development , allowing each community to contribute to and make use of the system in the manner most helpful for its own people. 

A participatory approach to crisis prevention 

The panel advocated for deliberately designing the global immune system and its operation with a people-centered, participatory approach, allowing for individual ownership of data, its analysis, and the solutions that emerge. The panel noted how, especially for health-related data, trust in terms of access and use is crucial. An effort led by a single government or industry, the panel agreed, could never be as successful in earning trust than one built by a coalition of governments, institutions, companies, non-profits, and ordinary citizens. Mechanisms like a rotating jury of global peers working to prevent improper use of the system’s data could also reinforce trust.  

Ultimately, though, it is essential that individuals have the opportunity both to choose whether to submit their own data and to play a part in identifying and resolving potential crises if they wish to. With a decentralized model for gathering and analyzing data, no single entity has sole ownership of the system, creating greater trust among its participants. If people share data willingly, the participatory data economy can differentiate itself from a surveillance state, allowing individuals to sacrifice their own privacy with the knowledge that they and their neighbors will use it to protect each other. 

Actionable steps towards planetary immunity 

In order to prevent the next major global crisis, individuals, governments, and organizations must: 

  • Collaborate to assemble global data into a database that all can access and search for anomalies; 
  • Develop analyst expertise or artificial intelligence to detect potential threats based on this data and identify solutions; 
  • Design the system with the rights and experiences of its all humans in mind (different communities have different ways of interacting with data, and distinct expectations of how their data will be used and by whom); and 
  • Develop a system of data ownership in which individuals willingly share data with the knowledge that any authenticated user, can access it.

Henry Westerman is an intern with the Atlantic Council’s GeoTech Center and a rising senior at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. His course of study is in Science, Technology, and International Affairs, with a concentration in Security, focusing on the intersection of science and geopolitics, particularly relating to advanced digital infrastructure and outer space development. Previously, Henry has interned at the Library of Congress and the Department of State’s Office of Science and Technology Cooperation. He also works at Georgetown’s writing center, providing free editing and consultations and serves as the historian for Georgetown’s student association. 

The GeoTech Center champions positive paths forward that societies can pursue to ensure new technologies and data empower people, prosperity, and peace.

Related Experts: David Bray and Divya Chander