May 30 (UPI) — In March, Silicon Valley tech giants such as Facebook, Alphabet, Microsoft and Amazon set up a task force to work together on technology tools to fight the outbreak,media reported. However, many cooperative projects have not been realized because of the many differences among the members. Working group leaders have found that the technology industry can play an important supporting role, but that technology alone cannot save the world and “applications alone cannot solve the problem”.
An early effort by Silicon Valley tech giants, investors and the White House to develop a tool to combat the new coronavirus is failing.
Illustration: John Borthwick, A Venture Capital Investor in New York
In March, a group of influential technology leaders formed a task force to design scientific and technological solutions for the outbreak. Employees of Silicon Valley tech giants such as Facebook, Alphabet, Microsoft and Amazon, the White House and prominent venture capitalists are among those involved.
The Technology and Research Working Group has developed a wide range of development plans. But a few months later, projects such as hospital bed trackers, contact tracers, and the delivery of Kindle devices to nursing home residents failed to materialise. Members of the working group expressed differences on privacy and other issues. The membership of the organization has been changing and the leadership has been changing. From Microsoft and Facebook to the White House, some of the organization’s biggest names have either quit or played little role.
Members of the working group say the technology industry can play an important supporting role in the world’s fight against the new coronavirus crisis, but technology alone cannot save the world.
“Apps alone won’t solve this problem,” said John Borthwick, a New York venture capital investor who now leads the group.
The team has been working with developers to develop contact tracking applications. When Apple and Google later announced the development of an app to help track infected people, some team members were taken aback. Members said many questioned the effectiveness of the app and whether companies were capable of keeping user information completely confidential.
At the end of April, Borthwick took over the new coronavirus technical working group after the name-to-name re-name. He said the group, which was formed in early March, was “very chaotic from the start.” He is now refocusing on connecting and sharing information rather than developing his own projects.
The team is currently organizing a virtual “hackathon” to stimulate interest in solving social isolation problems and to organize online events with public health officials and other experts to track contacts.
In March, they brought together tech giants and government representatives to help society with the “Save the World” spirit that has defined Silicon Valley for years.
Everyone wants to help. Members say the biggest problem is how to manage the vast array of ideas from the tech world.
The task force was driven by Josh Mendelsohn, a former Google employee who created Google’s disaster response program in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which aims to build a system to coordinate helicopter rescue operations in coastal states.
Mendelsohn, who is now managing partner at Hangar, a New York venture capital firm, hired Angel investor Ron Conway. Conway is known for his early investments in Twitter, Google and Facebook, among other industries.
In mid-March, about 45 people attended an early conference call with the working group, including Michael Kratios, the White House chief technology officer, his deputy Lynne Parker, and representatives of some of the big technology companies.
Illustration: Ron Conway, angel investor
The group quickly became embroiled in a privacy controversy. Discussions and other moves to track contacts through mobile phones have disappeared amid concerns about policy and regulation after seeing the tech giant suing regulators and lawmakers for its data collection practices.
Caroline Buckee, an epidemiologist at Harvard University and an early member of the working group, said the weekly video conference call ended up being a long discussion about privacy implications and data best practices.
“The themes are fragmented and it’s not clear what the goal is,” Barker said.
She and another early member, geo-location start-up Camber Systems, left the organization to create a network that aggregates location data to help cities and states track the movement of residents, known as the new coronavirus mobile data network.
On April 10th Apple and Google announced a joint development project that further complicated the work, and the team members became increasingly uncertain about what to focus on. Barker of Harvard University, one of the working group members, questioned whether the systems developed by the two companies were as effective as designed. The system uses Bluetooth technology to track users’ phones and alert users who come into contact with carriers of the virus.
Other members and executives contacted Apple and Google, questioning whether the effort would really protect user privacy, or whether U.S. cities and states would choose the technology tool.
While the two are not part of the team, Microsoft’s head of privacy, Julie Brill, and Peter Lee, head of research and incubation, warned on the company’s website that while people are “excited” about using technology to fight the outbreak, companies need to consider changing regulations and how much individual acceptance of shared data is.
“Technology, such as using mobile phones to collect data, needs to be considered in a more complex context,” the executives wrote. “
A Microsoft spokesman said: “We have not found any violations of privacy principles in Apple and Google solutions. “
Conway said he “strongly supports” the Google and Apple projects, and said he doesn’t know who in the team would not support the two companies’ efforts.
An Apple spokesman, speaking on behalf of Apple and Google, said the technology was not a substitute for traditional epidemiological investigationmethods, but that “both companies believe that this is another tool that public health agencies can choose, not a killer.” “
The two companies earlier this month unveiled technology to support mobile device tracking of contacts. Three states have already required the technology, but in the U.S. they don’t use Apple’s Google-standard app.
Since the end of March, some members of the working group have said they can no longer reach White House aides. Officials at the city and state levels are deciding which technology to use, making technical cooperation more difficult to manage.
A White House spokesman said it had not been involved in the group’s activities since the mid-March conference call. He noted that the government is engaging with the technology industry, such as working with IBM and Amazon to provide free supercomputing resources to help develop treatments.
Mendelssohn, the head of the working group, deals with his daily work and family chores while dealing with a large number of e-mails about the working group.
“I finally had to give up,” Mendelsohn said of his decision to quit the organization. “It’s a job that a person with adult children should do. “
In addition to its own, the working group currently has about 18 members, Borthwick said. 140 companies receive regular updates on their activities. Everyone is a volunteer.
The task force has set up a new advisory board that includes Robert Iger, the former chief executive of Walt Disney Company, and Leon Panetta, the former US defence secretary. “When they want or have specific things that need to be consulted,” Borthwick said, the committee will be involved.
“We’ve become more humble,” Borthwick said. “Less to think about technology as a solution. (Chenchen)