Technology must be properly regulated in our recovery from Covid
Covid-19 has changed the way we use technology, and it will play a large role in our recovery too. We must therefore get the balance of innovation and regulation right
The economic and healthcare crises set in motion by the Covid-19 pandemic bring a raft of new and immediate challenges for all of us, but they also cast uncompromising light on old ones: insecure work; uneven access to healthcare; an unproductive and unsustainable model of growth. Addressing them will require embracing technological innovation – but it must also mean recognising the vital role of the state in ensuring it serves the public interest.
The troubled development of the NHS contact tracing app highlights both the opportunities and pitfalls of harnessing technology to deliver healthcare and public services – and it demonstrates the pivotal importance of getting the policy and regulatory mix right.
While rolling out a systematic track-and-trace regime will be essential if we are to reopen the economy safely, designing the technology to underpin it requires striking a delicate balance on civil liberties. Countries which have rolled out similar apps have already taken divergent approaches to how the information they collect should be stored, accessed by the state, and integrated with other personal data. In China, for instance, the ‘immunity passports’ enabled by tracing apps have formed just one element of a forceful and pervasive national response to the virus, with automated facial recognition, thermal imaging cameras and other cutting-edge technologies harnessed by the state.
While it’s therefore vital that in Britain the design, deployment and retirement of tracing apps takes place within a robust legal framework. These technologies – and the ethical questions they raise – are here to stay. The world over, the demand for healthcare we’ve seen during the pandemic has forced governments to look anew at the role of technology in delivering medical and diagnostic services remotely. The demonstrable impossibility of scaling up in-person care quickly enough to meet demand at times of crisis makes it inevitable that telemedicine and AI will form a central part of the NHS architecture in years to come. The Government therefore must be more proactive in addressing how their use will be governed.
This will of course take up time made scarce by the exigencies of responding to a pandemic, but as we emerge from our homes into a world even more reliant on these technologies, we need a clearer roadmap – and we know that technology will continue to outpace primary legislation. That’s why regulators are so crucial – and it’s why they need the autonomy to update the rules and the teeth to enforce them. At present, for example, the forensics and biometric data regulators simply don’t have the power or the resource they need to do this job properly – and in my upcoming Private Member’s Bill I’m calling on the Government to put this right. I’ve long been an evangelist for technology, but this mustn’t mean fetishizing all innovation: it has to serve the public interest, and this means a strategic and intelligent approach to regulation.
As the challenge evolves from combating the virus to rebuilding the economy, we also need a recovery plan which puts technological innovation at its heart. A clear focus on spurring investment in tech – underpinned by the recognition that this will only be possible with the support of an active and mission-driven state – is essential to both reinvigorate the productive economy and generate sustainable, long-term growth.
For one thing, it’s clear that the distance-working and learning to which we’ve become accustomed during this crisis presages a foundational change that is likely to, at the very least, change our previous learning and working routines. In the short term, the extent of this transition is uncertain – after all, not every job can be done from home, and not everyone who can work remotely will opt to do so – but the long-anticipated shift away from a universe of grinding physical commutes, whether to work or to school, has now arrived. This is an opportunity worth harnessing: doing away with needless carbon-intensive travel means reduced emissions and a lower cost to doing business – but we must ensure that chances to prosper in this new economy are evenly shared, creating opportunities for growth outside of our major cities. In a world where telemarketing software is more valuable than air travel, ensuring that every student, worker and business has access to high speed internet – and access to a computer – will be as fundamental an infrastructure challenge as rebuilding our roads and our railways.
The slowdown also throws into especially sharp relief the scale of the challenge we face in averting climate disaster: even with an unprecedented 8% forecast reduction in global emissions this year, the world will still fall short of what’s annually required to cap warming at 1.5°C. Achieving a return to growth must not – and need not – mean abandoning the cause of sustainability. But this will require the state both to prime production through procurement and make financing available for technology firms at the cutting edge of the green revolution.
This pandemic has shown the power of the state, on behalf of taxpayers, to play an important role in signposting the country’s direction of travel. While we clearly won’t be able to maintain the amount of spending seen during the pandemic, the ability for the state to partner with wealth creators, innovators, workers and unions has been reimagined. Whether bringing back British manufacturing across the country by diversifying production, digitally transforming our service industries (including our public services) to increase productivity, or bringing all parts of the economy together to get a systems based response to climate change – what matters is for us to realise the role of the state in meeting productive capacity and enabling the innovations that will underpin a fair, dynamic and sustainable recovery.
The world over, advances in technology can enable us to move through the pandemic and rebuild our economy and public services in the process – but we need government on board.
Darren Jones is Labour MP for Bristol North West and chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee