Covid-19: Uniting and Dividing Us

There is a Chinese curse that supposedly says, “May you live in interesting times.” Whether we like it or not, we now live in interesting times. Regardless of the duration, or the costs we might need to bear, we will overcome this crisis like we have overcome others in the past. When we come out on the other side and take off our masks, our social behavior will be permanently altered. Will we do what we did after World War II, pull together, and build a global community, or will we be torn apart and drift towards another Cold War ?

We cannot welcome disaster, but we can value the responses, both practical and psychological.

Rebecca Solnit in How to Survive a Disaster

Coming Together

Facing a common enemy has sparked a communal spirit within us. Social distancing has, ironically, encouraged us to turn outward, care for our neighbors, and reconnect with our friends and families. By way of an example, I am doing something I haven’t done for years: calling my friends and family more often and having long, meaningful, and engaging conversations. Having everybody in the world going through similar experiences has inspired many of us to help out in our respective communities. There is an unprecedented outpouring of help and support from online community groups for people in high-risk categories and those in need. As the lockdowns spread across the world, it brought along the practice of collectively stepping out and applauding health-care workers. It’s an act that is part defiance, part support, and part celebration – we are all in this together. We feel helpless, but we are still here!

The collective cheering ritual started in Wuhan and spread across the globe in the virus’s wake.

This solidarity goes beyond a personal level. Doctors across the world are sharing their knowledge, treatments, and procedures. Researchers are collaborating on a global scale to create vaccines and improve virus detection. Industries across the globe are volunteering skillsets for research, as well as retooling their machines to make personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators. It has even compelled tech giants Apple and Google to team up and create a contact tracking system.

Doctors exchanging research notes on twitter


The threat that is unifying us is also threatening to reverse the globalization trend toward Cold War levels. As the virus spread, it brought about competition due to the limited supply of existing ventilators and PPE. Several U.S. states were in conflict with the federal government regarding access to ventilators from the Strategic National Stockpile, in addition to bidding against each another to acquire the much-needed PPE and medical equipment. The friction between U.S. states/local municipalities and the federal government was most evident in the case of New York and SF. Would the states ever depend on the central government ? Should they?

On a global scale, problems in regard to acquisitions surfaced with news of nations stealing masks from each other. The pandemic exposed and even widened the divisions in the EU. This was evident during the early days of the epidemic in March when Italy got hit the hardest, and other EU nations refused to offer medical help and supplies. As the lockdown takes a financial toll on Italy and Spain, economically stable northern countries disagree on sharing the burden, causing the worst crisis since the EU’s inception. The tensions and the resulting distrust will likely surpass the damage caused by the virus.

It’s a reciprocal interest that Europe meets this challenge. Otherwise, we must abandon the European dream and say, everyone is on their own. Either we all meet this challenge, or the tribunal of history will judge us.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte In an interview with Bild newspaper

Even after some semblance of normalcy has returned, travel restrictions are likely to continue. Travel across countries, something we had taken for granted, will never be the same. Borders that inhibit not only the entrance but exit as well have returned to a level beyond what the most ardent nationalist ever advocated. National sovereignty is being advocated as the best defense to an international threat

These contradictory trends are not new. They are an extension of the struggle between global solidarity and nationalism, now accelerated by the pandemic. As we continue to struggle, we are creating a new reality that will define us. We are not just observers; we are building history and performing together in this new and strange reality.

Photo by Filip Filkovic Philatz on Unsplash

Stay safe; stay well.

Plagues Return

Iron lungs in gym Courtesy of Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center

There was a time when the United States, flush with cash and robust with plentiful food and roads and cars and televisions, became paralyzed with fear of a contagion. Pools and schools were closed. Quarantines were imposed, fear was everywhere, businesses failed, tempers were frayed. Of course, I’m referring to the late 1940s and early 1950s, when Poliomyelitis – Polio – stalked the land, crippling tens of thousands, killing thousands, ruining lives. There have been no cases of Polio in the USA in the past 40 years, but I could as easily have been referring to HIV-AIDS, which arose in the 1980s, and has killed 32 million people since.

The thesis of this site is that the new, post-COVID normal is to be different. That we will have to adapt, that we will have to change some key parts of our behaviors, our social constructs, our industries and economies. And that we benefit by thinking of the strange new world.

Equally likely is that the years before COVID were the unusual ones, the strange ones.  That plague-free times were abnormal, and that plagues, ghastly waves of pandemic diseases have time and time again raged, running unstopped and little hindered through vast populations.

We were never supposed to forget. How did we as society forget? There are plenty of educated adults around for whom COVID was their FOURTH widespread health epidemic – pandemic. Polio, HIV-AIDS, SARS and COVID. Or even their fifth or even sixth, if you add H1N1 flu, or Ebola. Nonetheless, collectively, we forgot.

Ebola Virus, CDC

Plagues, pandemics, pestilences, contagions have been a near-constant in the rise of humanity. As fast as our improving technologies win more battles, new diseases rise against us. Vaccines won the war against Polio, and may yet push adequately back against COVID: vaccines for coronaviruses are really challenging, but there are over 80 programs underway to create one for COVID / SARS-COV2. Strict quarantines pushed back on SARS and Ebola (which now has a decent vaccine). But we as humanity and our societies have not built strong enough systemic safeguards against future challenges.

The 1918 – 1920 ‘flu pandemic infected as much as one third of all humanity alive at the time, and killed tens of millions. Cholera killed over a million Russians in the mid-19th century, and killed tens of thousands in each of many countries for years around then. 

Earlier pandemics were even more fatal. Bubonic plague, black death, killed as much as half of Europe’s population in the decades (in the 14th century) when it ravaged Europe – the word quarantine dates to this time – from the Venetian-dialect word for 40 days (of isolation). Large outbreaks were noted as early as the 6th century, but major outbreaks occurred in the 17th and 19th centuries.

And while genocide did its part in enabling Europeans to take over the Americas (a ghastly truth), imported diseases killed more. As many as 20 million native Americans were killed by infections brought over the Atlantic by Western colonizers and invaders – particularly Smallpox – eradicating as much as 90% of the indigenous population. Parts of the eastern seaboard of what is now the USA were almost completely emptied by new diseases. A later outbreak of smallpox in southern Africa, again brought in by Europeans, erased large parts of the native Khoisan peoples.

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

Some diseases never went away, and still killed in vast numbers. Tuberculosis was responsible for about one half of deaths for adults (ages 15 to 35) in Europe’s major cities in the late 19th century. Other contagious diseases, diphtheria, cholera and more, were always there, killing by the thousands. Influenza and the common cold evolve and persist and kill.

No wonder that the Bible and Shakespeare and many other writings (notably Camus, Defoe, and Garcia Marquez) throughout history, have harped on plagues, pestilences. Invisible diseases with new, strange, and poorly-understood vectors and contagion.

The thesis of Strange New Normal, then, is not only that COVID alone will change society, or that we will change society specifically to deal with COVID. It’s also that we have a moment, now, to build societies that are more resilient against, and better prepared for major disruptions, black swans. Better prepared for the next pandemics. For history tells us: they’re coming, they’ve come before, they’ve never stopped coming.

For one thing COVID has shown is: we were (mostly) unprepared. Our systems were taut, with little room for slack, few inefficiencies. All gone was the padding, the fat that enables resilience. We were, for the most part, uneducated on pandemics. We’d forgotten.

Left: Image of “Doctor Beak”, a plague doctor, Rome, 1656.
Right: Selfie of the author of this piece, heading out to buy groceries, California, April 2020.

Post-COVID Innovation

Never let a good crisis go to waste

– Anonymous

There are plenty of studies and books examining how rates of innovation and small-to-medium sized business (SMB) creation have plummeted in the US over the past several decades. Regardless of whether you take them at face value, and what the causes of the declines may be, the US and other countries are going to have a cavernous hole where SMBs used to be.

The coronavirus seems to have infected and warped our sense of time, leaving us in a liminal place. It’s difficult to delineate where “here” is and when “there” will arrive. Regardless of when the chronological murk clears, it may be useful to ask: how can we prepare for “there” in a way that will help the SMB ecosystem so that it comes out more robust than it was before?

I have many friends working at startups in the Bay Area, and I myself work at one that’s pivoted to help SMBs access the Paycheck Protection Program. So the question hits close to WFH.

The Opportunities 

The pandemic will desiccate SMBs, but it also creates opportunities. For example:

  • Swaths of the world just got a taste in entrepreneurship; ranging from re-tooling machines into ventilators to boosting robotics and drones innovations. They just experienced, firsthand, the very real “why” behind why any society needs to build robustly.
  • Many jobs have been lost and are not coming back. This means a portion of the workforce will (1) be forced to re-skill and (2) switch industries and potentially cross-pollinate ideas.
  • Many people are (1) experiencing self-directed, virtual education at home, and/or (2) watching their kids learn virtually. The result is a world that is much more amenable to virtual education and skill development. 
  • Regulation had been slow to change. Now Congress and state politicians have been forced to acknowledge the necessity of removing regulatory drag. Like how telemedicine regulation has advanced more in the prior weeks than in the previous years. 

How can we best feed these opportunities so that our SMB ecosystem doesn’t just survive but gains from this downturn?

Photo by Louis Velazquez on Unsplash

New Policy Norms = Part of Our New Normal

Our policy norms have been puréed in a food processor. As a simple example, consider how discussions of UBI, for most Americans, were far outside the Overton Window prior to February. 

Below are some of the most interesting tools I’ve come across for stimulating the SMB ecosystem, which could form the basis of our new view of “normal” policy: 

  • WPA – Many paths out of our current circumstances seem like they may need a new New Deal. Much of the country’s digital infrastructure is woefully out-of-date. E.g., the SBA’s digital infrastructure was nowhere near capable of doling out PPP loans. Let’s subsidize coding and similar boot camps that feed into jobs updating national, state and municipal digital infrastructure that’s woefully out-of-date. On the other side of this, we’d have a much more technologically literate workforce, poised to fill the tech skills gap.
  • Matching Investments – One of the contributors to Israel’s thriving SMB environment is Yozma, a program through which the government matches VC investments and offers tax incentives for foreign VC money. And Singapore has similar government matching. These programs seem to work well by supercharging private market incentives. 
  • Social Safety Net – We’ll need to correct for the risk-aversion that younger generations will have after experiencing the Great Recession and/or COVID-19. One way is through stronger social safety nets. This could take the form of universal basic income or nationalized healthcare. Sweden’s nationalized healthcare system, for example, is a likely contributor to the country’s high entrepreneurship rates.
    • A tragically large number of people have found themselves relying on social safety nets like unemployment and $1,200 living expense checks. This means a large number of voters are experiencing the white swan reasons that it’s wise to have safety nets. And such measures can be seen as investments. For a perfect example of why, just look at the J.K. Rowling Effect: give a single mother a safety net, and she won’t shift her citizenship for tax purposes when she later experiences outlying success.
  • Student Debt – The unprecedented student debt situation in the US is an obvious source of risk-aversion, and expanding debt forgiveness is an increasingly acceptable political topic. One option to promote entrepreneurship is to expand loan forgiveness programs to include SMB founders that, say, employ 5+ people for more than two years.
  • Immigration – Immigration could easily fill its own post or book. TL;DR: immigrants create SMBs at higher rates than native populations. We should be opening our borders much more to skilled immigrants.

What are your thoughts on how we can mend our SMB ecosystem to be stronger than before COVID-19?

Rise Of The Machines?

We’ve all been following the numbers on unemployment recently. Twenty-two million U.S. unemployment claims in the past few weeks; the worst since the great depression. Many of these losses are a result of our social distancing.

As a roboticist, this experience has me thinking, “how will this trend towards social distancing drive automation technologies?” Will the result of this pandemic be the rise of the robots? What will that mean for jobs?

Photo by David Levêque on Unsplash

Automation has already been a big driver in job loss. Between 2000 and 2010 the US lost approximately 5.8 million manufacturing jobs, roughly one third the manufacturing workforce, while maintaining roughly the same productive output. According to a study by Ball State University, 80% of this can be attributed to automation and technology. Over the past 10 years, advances in robotics and A.I. are permitting us to move robots out of highly precise factory environments and into unstructured environments, retail, streets, and kitchens. It isn’t just the roughly four million truckers at risk of losing their jobs to self-driving trucks, it’s fast food, medical, and retail. McKinsey estimates A.I. and automation will displace 400 million workers by 2030. I feel that is a conservative estimate.

Now many roboticists reading this may doubt the field’s capabilities to deliver the A.I. needed to accomplish these lofty goals. Narrow A.I. systems are deeply flawed and nowhere near as capable as the media gives them credit for being. Anybody who has seen the laughable performance of robots in the DARPA robotics challenge can tell you we have some time before the robots rise up.

Photo by Miguel Ángel Hernández on Unsplash

So, are people’s jobs safe from the robots? Maybe not entirely. There is one robotic technology that is advancing to the cusp of changing the world. Good old-fashioned tele-operation. Now, all roboticists have had our problems with joystick tele-operation. It’s hard to control a humanoid robot with a joystick. Our 21st Century technology was stuck with an early 20th Century user interface, but that is changing. New advances in Virtual Reality control of robots are going to lead to a User Experience (UX) revolution for robot tele-operation, making driving a robot as easy as moving your body.

For the first time in human history, physical labor will become decoupled from geography. The person striking for $15-an-hour and hazard pay during the COVID-19 crises may in the near future have to compete with somebody strapping on a VR suit in a developing country to control a robot for $15-a-day. This may seem like science fiction, but it is an area that is being heavily invested in in research, the $10 million dollar Avatar X-prize being a drop in the bucket compared to the funding the Japanese government is sinking into developing this tech. Robotic avatars are about to become big business.

Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash

The question that faces us now and in this potential robotic future will be the same: How do we as a society look out for people who are displaced from the workforce, whether it is due to a pandemic, or due to technology? We can look to programs like UBI but ultimately this comes down to how we choose to cooperate with each other to meet human needs. Robots taking jobs should be exciting news as people move away from repetitive work. We need to focus on building ladders for helping each other. Whether it’s from robots or COVID-19 there’s a hard road of change ahead. Help who you can, when you can, and if this pans out like prior depressions and industrial revolutions the changes we make will build a better society on the other side of the crises.