A mere seven or eight months ago, no-one anywhere could have predicted that hand-washing, social distancing and self-isolation would become not only everyday words, but fundamental concepts by which we live. No-one could have said that whole industries, like aviation, entertainment or hospitality, that were once simply taken for granted, would be threatened with extinction. No-one could have imagined that simply by shaking hands with someone, you could be putting their life, or your own, in danger. That’s the bad news. The good news, is that this is not just the era of the pandemic. It’s also the era of 4IR.
That means that the positive connotations of the word sapiens – “wise”, and “understanding” – can truly come to the fore. It means that with the phenomenal technologies that are daily leaping further forward, we have the tools for ameliorating the very real personal distress and societal stress, brought about by the coronavirus.
We can use cell-phones to track the movements of infected people, and trace the people they have met. We can use substances that work on the nano-material level to protect us. We can use 5G and other platforms to conduct diagnostics at a distance when speed is of the essence, or when access is difficult. Moreover, it can be done with the aid of artificial intelligence (AI) which can scan millions of cases to automate diagnosis. We can use drones to deliver food and medicines. We can use big data to rapidly understand areas and trends of infection, and predict new ones. We can use 3-D printing to quickly produce protective equipment. And we can use endless iterations of channels like Zoom to stay in touch, work in teams, teach and learn, without exposing ourselves to the threat of personal interactions. Most importantly, perhaps, we can use high-speed computational and molecular capacity to speed up therapeutic interventions that could lead to treatments and vaccines in a fraction of the time it once would have taken.
In other words, while humanity may never be able to cure all its ills, it certainly, for the first time in history, has an amazing range of tools to make the world incomparably better.
Many of us will have already become used to some of these tools and technologies. Many more of us will become used to even more of them very quickly, as solutions to problems that never before existed become part of our everyday parlance and experience.
And that brings us to the other aspects of the word sapiens – “rational”, “sane”, “judicious” and “discreet”. UJ, as an African thought leader interested in, and committed to, equitable progress, is aware that all too often our societies fall short in these qualities. With all the benefits that technology brings, there is also the threat of inequality, unfairness and injustice. That’s why UJ hosts its successful series of Cloudebates – online panel discussions to which everyone is invited, in pursuit of a better future for all. Never before has such a world crisis – such a punctuation in equilibrium – been so accessible to discussion, solution and resolution.
So, UJ invites you to join in the discussion on [date] at [time], by clicking on [link]. Add your voice to the question of how the coincidence of Covid-19 and 4IR can, in the end, bring solutions that will work to the benefit of humanity, and deal with issues as diverse as health, work, privacy, collaboration and the rebalancing of the environment.
It’s just a question of finding the right way to do things, and agreeing on ethical ways of adapting. It’s about mapping a route for society, that while acknowledging that the world we thought we knew may radically change, will nevertheless bring hope, confidence and continuity for all. At UJ it’s called reimagining the future.