By Armando Guio
Relevance is sometimes considered as one of the most important elements a job must have. Sometimes professional fulfillment seems to be directly related to the relevance of the work we are doing. However, this is quite a subjective concept. Many may consider that only scientific or governmental projects are relevant or only those that are profitable, among other criteria.
For me, relevance is achieved when it has a real social impact. It does not matter if it is from academia or the private or public sectors, as long as it has impact. Helping Colombia to achieve more economic growth, produce new job opportunities, reduce inequalities and improve public service access is something I consider to be relevant. Until some months ago I believed I was doing relevant work. My interest has always been to help Colombia to develop its tech and AI Policies. I believed I could achieve this by proposing ethical principles for the deployment of emerging technologies, helping to create new job opportunities in the tech sector and improving digital skills across the population. However, COVID-19 made me reconsider these beliefs.
When the disease became a global pandemic, my working expertise was displaced by a more urgent and pressing issue. COVID-19 was part now of every single conversation and professional meeting. I tried to participate in many of these conversations, but from a professional perspective I was not able to say much. I do not like to express an opinion that can influence decision-makers on topics I have no expertise or previous experience. Therefore, it was very difficult to feel that my knowledge and experience continued to be relevant under such circumstances. At one point, it seemed like no one cared any more about AI policy.
However, I still resisted this belief and considered my expertise to be relevant for the future and well-being of millions of individuals in Colombia and around the globe. However, the social challenges became evident and I started feeling differently. Thousands lost their jobs, general income was reduced, poverty and inequality exacerbated and mental health worsened. I was struck when Colombian news showed the situation of a Colombian family trying to survive the entire lockdown with one bag of rice. Who cares about AI now? Who cares about the future or future generations, if this is our present? Such a terrible social situation made me feel out of place. It became a real challenge to continue to talk about AI ethics or impact metrics in such a context.
So, the question I asked myself was: What comes next? Should I do something to keep my professional expertise relevant? Or, should I now become an expert on biological threats and legal issues? Should I change my professional objectives entirely?
A new idea occurred to me. Perhaps I should try to connect my knowledge with the current situation. I should try to show how AI would help us to overcome this situation or perhaps demonstrate how COVID-19 could directly affect the deployment of AI in Colombia. However, I did not feel entirely comfortable with this kind of thinking. It was almost like saying that all my previous work was only relevant and meaningful when things were not problematic. I still consider AI to pose some of the most relevant social challenges we have experienced in the history of humanity. I strongly believe this, with or without COVID-19.
I came to a conclusion about to me one of the most striking negative effects of COVID-19 and one that I feel affects all of us: this disease is making us lose our focus. Under the current pandemic, we struggle to keep our concentration on what we were doing before — things that are also relevant for the future of humanity. It is true that COVID-19 has shown and made us aware of the real impact of economic and social inequalities. It has also shown us the importance of our healthcare systems. In the end, visibility into system failures and successes are positive outcomes. But at the same time, the global health crisis displaces our concentration, efforts and resources towards this specific problem, and distracts us from longer term important challenges that have not disappeared.
That is when I realized that I will not let my work be seriously compromised by this disease. I am confident humanity will find a solution to this problem but simultaneously new ones will arise. We will have to deal with increasing unemployment and poverty as a result of lockdowns. Likewise, many companies and entities have turned to digital transformation processes and automatization to recover productivity and decrease biological risks. AI is now, more than ever, an essential tool to achieve these changes. We will see how many of the things we have discussed over the future of work or automated-decision making will increase and become a reality in many countries like Colombia.
I want to help my country and the entire region to be prepared for that moment. Now is the time to trust healthcare policy experts, doctors, nurses and many others to help battle against this disease. They are doing an extraordinary job. They will help us to survive this crisis, but they are counting on policy leaders to make the right long term choices for society t. Perhaps my work may not be seen as relevant right now and headlines may not discuss AI as urgently as they did before, but the topic is now more important than ever.
Likewise, this situation has taught me a very valuable lesson. I cannot reduce the positive social impact and good I can do with my work on tech and public policy. I need to find additional ways of connecting with social problems and trying to solve them. This is why I think that besides my professional duties, I want to participate in more social projects that can help people to have access to basic resources, such a s food or housing. No Colombian should feel right when there is a family that has to survive with a bag of rice for months, with or without COVID-19. This can also in turn to be a very helpful enterprise that reduces the pressure of only achieving social positive impacts exclusively through the design and implementation of public policy in the tech sector.
COVID-19 has shown me that we can do more and we should do more. It will be valuable to explore these types of possibilities with others at the NoC. Such a Network can bring together some of the most talented individuals around the world to improve the situations that many are experiencing in countries, such as Colombia, as a consequence of this pandemic. You can count on me to help people in my country or in other regions that are dealing with these challenging social and economic effects.
Armando Guio Español is a Colombian lawyer with an LLM from Harvard University and an MPP from Oxford University, who works on Artificial Intelligence Policy in Colombia and Latin America. He is currently an affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society.