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Editorial: Why Big Tech can be proud of its coronavirus response

Wed 25 Mar 2020

The rise of Big Tech has been considered a viral concern in its own right — but Silicon Valley’s Covid-19 reaction should be applauded

The novel coronavirus pandemic is sweeping the globe and once bustling industrial economies are grinding to a halt. 

Companies and their employees are being forced to rapidly adapt to a new way of working, civil liberties are being withdrawn to ease pressure on already-squeezed health services, and emergency services on the frontline of the pandemic are making unthinkable sacrifices to attend the infected.

At the time of writing, there have been 395,807 confirmed cases of the virus which have led to 17,235 deaths. The most recent country to enforce lockdown measures is the UK, which is crusading to instruct citizens to stay indoors to “save the NHS.” Such measures have never been seen before in the nation’s history.

Some understandably argue that the UK’s measures are too little too late, comparing with trepidation the infection trajectory rates of the UK and Italy. 

Others despair at how members of society are failing to do their part, when every contribution counts. Instead of stomaching a few weeks of Netflix and shopping when necessary, boozers can’t resist flocking to the pubs and confused panic-buyers are stockpiling decades’ of loo roll supplies.

While some critique the UK and other governments for being too slow to respond and lament these acts of selfishness, no one can fault the decisive action of Big Tech in response to the all-consuming crisis.

Readers of this publication will be aware how we slavishly document the competition between Google, Amazon, Microsoft and IBM (references to the cloud “war” today seem horribly inappropriate). 

These are companies scrambling to secure cloud contracts and build data centres in every corner of the globe to attract the swathes of companies ditching data centres for the cloud.

It would be hyperbole to say that Covid-19 has brought about a cloud war ceasefire. Afterall, Microsoft and Amazon are still in court over the $10 billion dollar JEDI contract (although the legal process started months ago and has quieted in recent weeks.)

Nevertheless, to a man, the Gods of Mount Data have recognised that the digital infrastructure over which they preside is going to play an invaluable role in defeating this virus and sustaining the economy — and they have wasted no time in coming to the table to hand over digital resources. 

To take one example, this week, IBM, Google, Microsoft and Amazon all opened up their cloud services to researchers working to understand the novel coronavirus and form treatments that can be used for potential vaccines. 

Amazon is handing over a whopping $20 million in cloud credits to the initiative and alongside grants, Microsoft is making its top AI data scientists available to promising projects.

And IBM’s record-breaking supercomputer, Summit, is standing by to process epidemiological calculations that would take normal systems years to complete. 

It’s not the first time the system has been used, either. Earlier this month scientists simulated molecular reactions on the supercomputer that could be used to stop Covid-19 from infecting host cells, a crucial step toward finding a vaccine.

In January, when China’s semiconductor production was squeezed by PRC quarantine measures, one popular tech news outlet joked that they “finally had a tech angle” on coronavirus. 

These days, there is too much news to cover, and the overwhelming majority of it shows Big Tech in an unusually favourable light. 

While US and UK governments mulled and prevaricated over quarantine measures as Covid-19 cases soared, across the board, tech titans moved swiftly to enforce strict remote working policies and digitalise events. 

Their talented and mammoth workforces have used this time to collaborate. Last week, volunteers from Amazon, Alphabet, Apple and other tech companies worked every night for a week to make a coronavirus tracking website in six days.  

Google has also launched its own official coronavirus screening site and together with Apple and Amazon cracked down on unofficial apps. Microsoft compiled a map to track the virus and helped the Center of Disease Control and Prevention create a chatbot assessment tool for coronavirus. Don’t forget Siri, which was updated to talk people through symptoms and point them to relevant health authorities.

Microsoft made workplace collaboration tool Teams available to NHS workers for free and worked with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (founded by Mark Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla Chan) to compile a mammoth dataset of machine readable coronavirus research articles.

Meanwhile, Apple and Facebook are sourcing millions of face masks and other supplies needed for healthcare workers. News outlets are supposed to be sceptical but one tech publication, bafflingly, couldn’t resist questioning the value of these efforts.

Big Tech is looking after its workers as well. Very early on, Amazon, Google and Facebook pledged to pay hourly workers regular wages come what may. Jeff Bezos recently reiterated Amazon’s pledge to hire 100,000 new roles to ensure the delivery of essential items.

It’s not also just quote-un-quote Big Tech working day and night to aid in the crisis. Cyber security company McAfee pledged to assist any organisation fighting on the front line of Covid-19 if their systems were attacked by hackers. Not to mention the data centre operators camping out at facilities to ensure uptime at a time when critical government functions and emergency personnel need functional IT more than ever.

It is not really ever the “done thing” to shower praise on billion dollar companies, and some will object that these sacrifices have a marginal impact on bottom lines. And let’s make one thing absolutely clear: Their efforts are nothing compared to the sacrifices made by healthcare and emergency on the frontline.

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube should have moved more quickly to stamp out coronavirus misinformation while they could. And influential Silicon Valley personalities have made a habit of weighing in on medical debates via ill-advised threads. Hopefully more keep their fingers away from keyboards and focus instead on their areas of expertise. 

But, in general, the archetypal villains of surveillance capitalism have had no hesitation in equipping those who need it with the technological power that has made them into such dominant forces. 

Capitalist economies are riddled with inequality and powerful self-serving forces – but it is humanity that has shined through the surface in recent weeks. 

The rise of Big Tech has been popularly portrayed as a viral concern in its own right. Tomorrow’s history books will look back on this period as a time when the titans of technology covered themselves in glory.


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