Corona and TA

Technology assessment: when, if not now?

Coronavirus. Quarantine. Online training education and freelance work remote conference . Computer, laptop and girl gen z studying remotely. Coronavirus pandemic in the world. Closing schools

The current coronavirus crisis has turned our world upside down: the circumstances are extraordinary, and restrictions to our daily lives that were inconceivable just a short time ago have become the new normal. Much of what we used to take for granted has been called into question, and a post-crisis return to business as usual appears doubtful.

In the field of technology assessment, it is of particular interest to note that technologies are playing a highly prominent role in managing the crisis. As a long-established, independent liaison between the world of research and the political sphere, TA-SWISS assesses the opportunities and risks of new technologies, clarifies issues, sheds light on the intricate web of cause and effect, and analyses the consequences of potential decisions. In doing so, and in accordance with its stated purpose, TA-SWISS provides the foundation for careful and considered political action.

Risk and a state of emergency

The Covid-19 pandemic has proven to be a veritable testing ground for a variety of digital technologies on which TA-SWISS has published studies in recent years. Now, in the present emergency situation, many technical innovations that previously had been perceived as an opportunity or as too great a risk – or as a risk that could be accepted only with great reservations – appear in a different light. For instance, it will be interesting to learn whether, in a post-crisis world, the general public will continue to take such a critical view of the planned market roll-out of the next-generation mobile technology 5G. After mobile networks – despite being part of Switzerland’s ‘critical infrastructure’ – hit maximum capacity so quickly that Swisscom was forced to call on users to be more economical in accessing streaming services while YouTube and Netflix had to lower video quality, the controversy surrounding 5G and its tempting promise of higher connection speeds, greater bandwidth and shorter response times could be given a new twist, resulting in broader acceptance of the technology in society.

  • Position paper ‘5G: Die Mobilfunk-Revolution?’, TA-SWISS, June 2019 (in German and French)

From the real world into the internet

Now that a large percentage of the population in industrialised countries is home on lockdown, working and learning have shifted to the internet as has social and political life. Virtual ways of communicating and collaborating are being tried out, making it possible to hold meetings with work colleagues, attend lectures, have a drink with friends and even go to a reading group, yoga lesson or cooking class, while small businesses are opening digital shop fronts and online commerce is booming.

Nevertheless, the emergency measures that were adopted on extremely short notice raise serious questions regarding data protection, our private sphere and the security of IT – particularly in the world of work. At the same time, future employment may change permanently in light of the current surge in working from home, which many employers have traditionally viewed with suspicion despite paying lip service to the option. TA-SWISS considered the advantages and disadvantages of flexible online work models already at an early stage of this development. Although the advantages of an online economy are currently highly visible, the TA-SWISS studies also pointed to the dangers facing self-employed individuals whose income derives entirely from internet platforms and who have waived all employment law protections.

The crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic has also made problems surrounding equal access apparent: not all professional activities can be transferred to the internet, and not all employees can benefit from the opportunities of flexible online work. For instance, shop assistants, staff at cash registers, nurses and cleaners can and must continue to perform their jobs solely in the real world, where they may be exposed to the virus. And there are differences among even those employees able to work from home, as not everyone has the same access to a good-quality technical device or high-speed internet. This is where digital technologies have the potential to open alarming social divides that cannot be readily anticipated.

The problems regarding equal access are particularly critical in education. The corona crisis has created a testing ground for digital teaching and learning, yet here, too, not all students are on equal footing. Digital distance learning on a smartphone is more difficult to manage than when a large computer screen and a printer are available at home. That digital teaching materials – which are in principle open to everyone, all over the world – could actually undermine equal opportunity in education is one of the potential risks observed in the preliminary study on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) commissioned by TA-SWISS and conducted in 2014 by the University of Fribourg.

  • Mobile Arbeit in der Schweiz, Lucienne Rey (ed.), vdf Hochschulverlag an der ETH Zürich, 2002 (in German)
    (cf. pp. 148–154, legal aspects regarding, for instance, personally performing employment activities, following the superior’s instructions or observing duties of loyalty and due diligence)
  • Flexible neue Arbeitswelt. Eine Bestandsaufnahme auf gesellschaftlicher und volkswirtschaftlicher Ebene, Meissner J., Weissbrodt J., vdf Hochschulverlag an der ETH Zürich, 2016 (in German)
    (c.f. Chapter 2.6 focus on working from home [summary of pros and cons], 3.7.3 Bring your own device [specific difficulties when a personal computer or cell phone are used for employment activities])
  • Les MOOCs bientôt à l'agenda politique? Etat des lieux et perspectives, TA-SWISS, 2015 (in French)

Privacy and data protection

Many countries have met with considerable success in slowing the coronavirus outbreak by using digital surveillance and artificial intelligence. These technologies include: tracking tools that use mobile data to trace contact between infected and healthy individuals and to reconstruct transmission of the virus; location data to enforce rules on public and social gatherings and to monitor people in quarantine; smart thermal cameras with facial recognition software that send an alert when a temperature over 37.3 is detected. Due to the urgency and extraordinary nature of the situation, however, data protection principles are not always respected. For instance, personal data are usually not anonymised, data collection is not limited to a minimum, no additional protection in the form of data encryption or restricted access rights is available, and no guarantee is given that data will be destroyed after being used. At the same time, this situation has motivated a large number of researchers and app developers in Switzerland and other areas to devise the technological framework for tracking apps that comply with data protection rules.

Prior to the crisis, people used fitness trackers and smartphone apps mainly to monitor their own health and to improve their physical fitness. The 2018 TA-SWISS study ‘Quantified self’ on self-tracking in the health sector, however, already observed that even those tracking technologies used primarily for personal fitness and health goals open the door to potential new ways to gather information. The study emphasised the absolute importance of respecting and protecting human dignity, while also pointing out that making private life choices is a fundamental right and that end-to-end registration of all movements and life-style decisions is therefore not acceptable.

Do such reservations become redundant in a crisis? In 2014, in the scope of a large-scale European research project in which TA-SWISS took part, citizens of nine European countries were asked whether they were prepared to give up some of their privacy for increased safety. The answer was a clear ‘No’. Would the response change, however, if ‘health’ replaced ‘safety’, as in the coronavirus pandemic? Does the well-being of society at large justify restrictions to our individual freedoms? Will a ‘health dictatorship’ be introduced under the guise of disease prevention? Schopenhauer said, ‘Health isn’t everything, but without health, everything is nothing.’

  • Quantified Self – Schnittstelle zwischen Lifestyle und Medizin, TA-SWISS (ed.), vdf Hochschulverlag an der ETH Zürich, 2018 (in German)
  • Das Mass aller Dinge: Potenziale und Risiken der digitalen Selbstvermessung, summary of the TA-SWISS study ‘Quantified self’, TA-SWISS, 2018 (in German)
  • Bitte lächeln, Sie werden überwacht! Bericht über drei Diskussionsforen in drei Landesteilen zum Einsatz von modernen Überwachungstechnologien in der Schweiz, conducted as part of the European project SurPRISE (Surveillance, Privacy and Security), TA-SWISS, 2014 (in German and French)

Robot helpers

Our healthcare systems are overwhelmed. Doctors and nurses on the front lines are permanently at risk of contracting the coronavirus. The general problems of overwork and difficult employment conditions are further exacerbated by the lack of qualified personnel, which has forced healthcare providers throughout Switzerland to recruit retired doctors and nurses. But what if we used robots instead? TA-SWISS initiated the discussion on robots and autonomous devices in patient care with an initial study in 2013. In light of rapid advances in robotics, a participatory workshop entitled ‘Focus Robots’ was subsequently held in 2019; at the workshop, citizens formulated their questions, hopes, expectations and fears concerning the use of robots in medical care. In June of the same year, TA-SWISS launched a study on human and robot interactions that are designed to simulate empathy.

  • Robotik in Betreuung und Gesundheitsversorgung, TA-SWISS (ed.), vdf Hochschulverlag an der ETH Zürich, 2013 (in German and French)
  • Focus Robots, final report on participatory workshop, TA-SWISS (ed.), 2019 (in German and French)
  • Robots, empathy and emotions, current TA-SWISS project (2019–2021)

And after the crisis?

The rather tired buzzword of an all-pervasive ‘digitisation’ has suddenly become much more than an empty catchphrase: the crisis has triggered a veritable digitisation boom. Work and commerce as well as our social and political lives are shifting to online solutions. The parliamentary session of the Swiss government had to be adjourned, and citizens are confined to their homes. How will this impact social structures, social cohesion and democracy in the long term? Is it desirable, possible or perhaps even essential that everything return to normal? Or will we perhaps find new, digital solutions to create a more stable, resilient and sustainable democratic community? The current TA-SWISS study on digital democracy explores these questions.

Indeed, the Covid-19 pandemic appears to have strengthened the will in the executive and legislative branches of government – even in the political parties and media – to go beyond partisan and ideological divides and to seek responsible solutions. To do so, the often-complex facts and their interdependencies must first be understood; only then can we begin the more difficult debate on the values we believe are important. In such matters, technology assessment as a scientific and evidence-based advisory service to the political sphere can help to introduce new technologies that support constructive solutions.

Policy decisions are taken in a grey zone where science and conscience intersect, which is why it is crucial that evidence-based technology assessment does not limit its investigation of potential ‘technological futures’ to feasibility. Essential is also meticulous consideration of both desired and unwanted consequences for society, the political sphere and the economy; the resulting understanding enables the formulation of viable recommendations for evidence-based policies. For precisely this reason, TA-SWISS will also continue to pay very close attention in the current crisis.

  • Citizens and institutions, and the digitisation of democracy in Switzerland, current TA-SWISS project (2017–2022)
  • PACITA (Parliaments and Civil Society in Technology Assessment): Strengthening Technology Assessment for Policy-Making, Report of the Second Parliamentary TA Debate in Lisbon, TA-SWISS (ed.), 2017