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Shaping a Post-COVID-19 World

Colin Harrison
Sep 21 · 6 min read

For nine months the COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged individuals’ lives, businesses, economies, and societies and there is no end in sight. It is adding tremendous uncertainty to a world already unbalanced through political and social conflicts, rising effects of climate change, and awareness that sprawling cities increasingly bring us into contact with potential sources of many more viruses. We are faced with the challenge of untangling the complexity of human and natural systems so that we can track and make sense of what is happening today in every inhabited part of the planet and predict and forestall whatever calamity is likely to happen next. We would like to return as quickly as possible to “normal life”, while avoiding cascading disasters that could cause ongoing medical, social, and economic suffering for large swaths of the world’s population. If it were only that easy.

At the same time, public trust in the ability of science and technology to assuage these threats is being sapped by political forces. As much as we need medical science to develop vaccines to halt the cyclical spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, we need means to provide rational reporting and explanation of what is happening and effective means to respond. Smart machines and big data by themselves will not be enough to take on today’s vast, complex challenges. To help society adapt to conditions that evolve rapidly and obscurely, we need to combine the best features of humans with the power of data and algorithms.

While Artificial Intelligence (AI) frequently grabs the headlines, taking over many human skills, its cousin, Augmented Intelligence (IA), instead provides us with a mental exo-skeleton. It enables humans to capture and interpret amounts of information far beyond our natural Radius of Cognition and to extract knowledge on the operations of complex human and ecological systems.

I am one of the leaders of a global research initiative, Pivot Projects, that is using Augmented Intelligence to imagine post-COVID worlds. In mid-April several of us put our heads together and saw the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to urge developed societies to shift course towards safer futures. We launched the project and invited experts in a wide range of disciplines to take a complex systems perspective on what is happening and to use those insights to craft innovative solutions. Within a couple of weeks, 25 researchers and professionals had volunteered. Within two months, we had over 120 people from 25 countries developing system models for some 20 major areas of human and natural activity. Within three months we were able to present our first deliverable.

These volunteers come from Europe, North America, Central Africa, South East and Central Asia, and the Far East — from countries both rich and poor. Participants include seasoned experts in computer science, environmental sustainability, and societal resilience. We are especially proud that the project also includes a large number of young people who are still in school or just launching their careers, who are determined to steer society onto paths that lead to greater sustainability, resilience, and equality.

These workgroups are looking at the challenge from differing yet connected perspectives on topic areas ranging from ecology, water, health, and infrastructure to economics, communities, faiths, and education. 22 topics in all. Notice especially faiths, in which we are contemplating the interconnectedness of people. Interconnectedness with one another and with our planet and the values that result. We are asking the most fundamental questions: What is my purpose? What is our purpose as a society or as a species?

Our current work is the development of an IA-based, whole-Earth model that will enable policymakers to explore futures that are more sustainable, resilient, and fair as well as lower-cost than the default options. Our intent is to establish Collaborative Laboratories with city, regional, and national leaders. We will demonstrate this by the end of 2020 in several sites within the countries that were the signatories of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. All of this research will be made publicly available on GitHub and we encourage others to build on what we produce. We intend also to present this work at gatherings such as the United Nations environmental group (COP-26) meeting (Glasgow, November 2021) and the G20 Global Solutions meeting in (Saudi Arabia, November 2020).

At the heart of our work is a recognition that the world is made up of a myriad of natural and human systems that are interconnected. Think of a bramble of wild blackberries. If you grab one branch and pull on it, the entire thicket moves and shakes. That is how our planet works, too. Everything is connected to everything else. Spiritual leaders and philosophers have sensed this for millennia, but humans alone cannot make sense of all of those inter-dependencies and we risk making some things worse while we are trying to make other things better. Today IA enables humans to collaborate with smart machines to understand these complex adaptive systems and to use that understanding to fashion solutions that avoid negative consequences. We are fortunate to have support for this AI/IA work from our partner, SparkBeyond.

Here is where the technology and systems thinking comes in. We are building ontological models of some twenty areas of human and natural systems. Each of the 20 workgroups is tasked with identifying the most important and relevant entities and their interactions within their topics. They are using the KUMU data visualization tool to create high-level models of those system views and to map the interrelationships between their components. When all of the teams’ models are created and linked, the result will be, essentially, a whole-earth model of a large fraction of the planet’s human and natural systems at the scale of policy-making. It will be the first time anything like this has been done.

The next step is to import these models into the IA “problem-solving” platform developed by SparkBeyond. This technology is used by corporations and governments to generate many more innovative ideas and test hypotheses than human minds would be able to achieve. With these models, together with libraries of research reports for each topic, we can teach the IA platform what we mean by “water”, “ecological health”, “communities”, and so forth. It is an example of one of the most important uses of IA: making sense of vast amounts of data and interactions that would stump humans. We are particularly interested in finding in this model Virtuous Circles, loops of positive feedback that can amplify and accelerate change.

Using the SparkBeyond platform, the high-level models and accompanying reference documents will be deepened and broadened by layering on data from a vast archive of Internet material. Once the system is validated, the collaborative teams can work with the machine: asking it questions of the form “what if…”, exploring the resulting scenarios from the perspectives of many different policies, and applying their expertise and judgment. Human and machine intelligence working together. Partners from different cultures may assess and prioritise the results in terms of their cultural values. We will recognise phenomena and events that are new and emerging, repurpose solutions from one domain to another, and uncover solutions that are transformational and regenerative — all with access to the underlying evidence. This can then be applied to generate purposeful proposals.

It is ambitious, we acknowledge. Something of a “moon shot”. But what less will suffice?

If we do not address these challenges, the future of homo sapiens is likely to be worse than our recent past. Hard-won progress in sustainability, resilience, and equality will be lost. The dreams we have of a better future for the many, as posed in the UN Sustainable Development Goals, will evaporate under the heat of natural calamities and social strife. Do we have any other choice than success?

While the project has been underway for a couple of months, it is not too late for additional people to volunteer, come aboard, and contribute to an exciting collaboration. We need your ideas, your expertise, and your energy. (We also need some money to help fuel the initiative.) So, please, come join us in our effort to make the world a better place.

We see the disruptions of COVID-19 as a wake-up call to the world. Our civilisation is living on borrowed time. Climate change is advancing rapidly and other threats menace. We must pivot towards the future laid out in the UN’s Sustainable Development goals. Most government stimulus spending so far has focused on returning to pre-COVID normal. But we recognize that “normal” is no longer acceptable nor achievable. it is environmentally unsustainable and leaves too many people behind and is thus already the cause of planetary disruption.

Pivot Projects

Volunteers global using collective intelligence and AI to create healthy prosperity for all

Colin Harrison

Written by

Dr. Harrison is an IBM Distinguished Engineer Emeritus and a co-founder of the Pivot Projects.

Pivot Projects

By harnessing the vast experience of global participants, the wisdom of indigenous cultures, a unique database, and the sheer computational power of artificial intelligence, the people of the pivot projects will provide suggestions about what it means to pivot and how to pivot.

Colin Harrison

Written by

Dr. Harrison is an IBM Distinguished Engineer Emeritus and a co-founder of the Pivot Projects.

Pivot Projects

By harnessing the vast experience of global participants, the wisdom of indigenous cultures, a unique database, and the sheer computational power of artificial intelligence, the people of the pivot projects will provide suggestions about what it means to pivot and how to pivot.

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