AI for reorganizing day-to-day life after the pandemic?

Signal post, May 2020.

In our Signal posts we discuss signals – concrete events, shared experiences and current developments – that give us hints of what might be possible in the future. In this post, we are inviting you to reimagine everyday life after the COVID-19 crisis: how we create our future, how we frame and accept “the new normal”, what we care about most? What is the role of AI related to pandemic reality in the future and what kind of ethical issues it raises?

The pandemic suddenly forced to stop and think about our choices, opportunities, and priorities. Paradoxically, living in social isolation seems to be boosting our abilities for reaching out to other people; especially people who are important for us. Rocky relationships have been smoothing out, old walls have melted away, nasty words have been forgotten and kindness took over. This exceptional crisis gave us new “eyeglasses” to more clearly see what do we really care about. The sudden and unusual lockdown made us realize what is important in life:

Emma: ‘Coronavirus gave me a reason to reach out to my brother’

Michael: ‘Lockdown made me realize what’s important’

Jo: ‘I’m connecting with my family members I haven’t spoken to in years’

10 years from now, will Emma, Michael and Jo continue to ‘heal old wounds, reconnect with their families and create new bonds’?

This crisis helps us see in a new light what we have taken for granted. In a way, living in lockdown conditions had simplified our lives, we have stepped down from the treadmill for a while. We are home-based: we stay at home, work and study from home, do shopping from home. We do not travel, do not use our cars, and generally consume less. Some people struggled, especially if living alone or have lost their job, while others realized they have time to enjoy life, take up a small home renovation project, or finally organize the family photos. We have more time to exercise or learn a new skill, such as cooking from scratch. Perhaps in the future people will enjoy more the simple things and focus on sustainability and spending quality time. Instead of multitasking, we will place great value to being present in our day-to-day interactions. We will pause and actually listen. At the same time, other aspects of life are becoming more complicated, for example creating new relationships, dealing with exhaustion, mental health issues and uncertainty.

How we will reorganize day-to-day life after the pandemic? We may reconsider the value of travelling as new, environmentally-friendly possibilities for virtual tourism are rising. Stonehenge will livestream its summer solstice celebration for the first time ever, while virtual trips to beautiful Saimaa lake region have been almost sold out since Finland turns to virtual tourism due to pandemic. We can explore new places, cultures and people from the sofa of our living room – hopefully we do not end up being virtually touring yet real ‘coach potatoes’. We may experience unintended health consequences related to continuous disinfection though. Accidents resulting from misuse of disinfectants and sanitizers indicate that recommendations for cleaning and disinfection can be misunderstood or taken to extremes. Are we likely to see some adverse effects on our immune system or mental health related to continuous washing, cleaning and disinfecting?

Monitoring and contact tracking are spreading globally, justified by healthcare concerns and control of the current or future pandemics, and AI technology plays a key role: AI is already used to check whether people are wearing masks on public transport, and we refer to contact tracking apps in our previous ETAIROS Signal post. Facemasks are becoming mandatory in many countries in public places yet they might be difficult to find or quite pricy, they need to be changed frequently and disposed properly. Companies claim that AI technology will generate anonymous statistical data that will help authorities anticipate future outbreaks of COVID-19. What if people are not even willing to use public transport in the future? What if people are unaware of the public health risks associated with improper disposal of masks? How can AI be used to nurture good habits instead of monitoring existing ones?

Ethical and governance issues in these conditions include the role of responsibility, risk awareness, feelings of disturbed civil liberties, transparency and privacy, uneasiness of spending time in closed public spaces. Is it time to redesign public transport, public spaces and our “smart” cities to better accommodate future disturbances? Could we have for instance an AI-based city map of risky areas in real time? The map could show you that now in the afternoon it is not wise to go to the certain shop or area, because of the crowded places and associated health risk. From a work life perspective, people are more willing to work from home and voices from different parts of the world indicate that remote work will likely be common in the future.

The pandemic pushes us to re-evaluate the way we live our lives and re-examine our changing human needs and habits. The lockdown was sudden and long enough to form new habits. What is the role of technology in this shift? How AI can account for this variety of human needs, and the complexity of various impacts with these needs? How can we design and use AI to assist us in this new life? AI has the potential for bringing extra intelligence to better “see” the shortages in the system, make better decisions, identify leverage points and possibilities for optimization, remove waist, or even eliminate suffering. Researchers trained a deep neural network capable of predicting molecules with antibacterial activity – if AI outsmarted the superbugs, can we, together with AI, outsmart the novel COVID-19 as well? What can we build after the global pandemic? Disruptions are intertwined with hope, and we all have spectrum of choices and responsibilities to make decisions that create good life in the future.

The writers: Nadezhda Gotcheva, Raija Koivisto and Nina Wessberg (VTT)

This Signal post series present a brief overview of a topical issue related to the fields of AI and ethics. The signal post is produced based on the continuous horizon scanning work in the Finnish Academy SRC project ETAIROS. The aim is to identify and integrate weak signals in the area, analyze and discuss their importance and possible future developments and impacts.