There have been a number of exciting developments in the blockchain space in 2020. To name a few: the emergence of decentralized finance (DeFi) and non-fungible tokens (NFTs) as major economic forces and sources for the exploitation of crypto network users, the maturation of Layer 2 Ethereum solutions and the adoption of a multitude new blockchain releases with favorable scalability properties.
As all of this technological advancement has unfolded, the world as a whole is wavering from a tiny virus that has evolved into one of the greatest social and economic disruptions of modern times. Towards the end of the year, it is worth asking what blockchain technology contributed to humanity’s efforts to deal with the pandemic.
This post is part of CoinDesk’s 2020 Year in Review – a collection of posts, essays, and interviews about the year in Crypto and beyond. Ben Goertzel is the founder and CEO of SingularityNET, a blockchain-based AI marketplace project.
The short answer is, despite some large loopholes that blockchain is very well suited to, and some fairly serious efforts, the contribution of blockchain to fighting COVID-19 has so far been frankly quite small. This could improve a little over the next six months as we near the end of the pandemic, but the situation is unlikely to change incredibly radically.
What we can learn could help blockchain play a more critical role in tackling the next global crisis, whatever it may be.
The centralized efforts of Google and Apple to keep track of contacts under privacy law have not improved much.
The pandemic was a fantastic opportunity for blockchain technologies focused on the sovereignty of personal medical data. China and other Asian countries battled COVID-19 while putting privacy aside and aggressively using tracking and tracing. Blockchain technology offers the possibility of tracking and tracing privacy as well as collecting and collecting personal data more comprehensively in order to analyze it together for the common good.
Several blockchain-based contract tracking apps have emerged from Nodle and Blockchain Baseline Protocol, for example. There were also MIT Safepaths that used secure distributed computation and strong encryption, but not blockchain per se. The assumption was minimal. To be fair, Google and Apple’s centralized efforts to keep track of contacts under privacy law haven’t done much better.
Then there were creative endeavors like the DAO for Decentralized Pandemic Reserves which aimed to allocate critical resources in tough times, my own SingularityNET’s Intelligent Agent-Based Simulation Modeling project to scientifically evaluate and propose pandemic management guidelines, and the decentralized ImmunoLynk’s IPFS-based network for managing immunity test results.
Although these are scientifically and technically well-founded, they have so far not played a key role in the management of the pandemic by society.
My own team’s experience of agent-based modeling of COVID-19 for scientific assessment and suggesting guidelines for pandemic management has been instructive.
As we developed and experimented with advanced computer science methods to simulate the spread of COVID-19 and assess the impact of various policies, we lived under the coercion of COVID policies that were derived in far less sophisticated and thorough ways.
See also: InterPlanetary File System is uncensored during Coronavirus News Fog
We have often asked ourselves: why is our society, so technologically advanced in many ways, unwilling to use the best modeling technology available to scientifically identify the best strategies for saving lives and maintaining economic health?
In the next few months, we may find some forward-looking jurisdictions interested in using our AI modeling methods to understand how best to manage COVID-19 at the vaccine adoption phase. While this has the potential to save lives and the economy, it should have happened that these types of instruments were used at the national and global levels from the start.
In order for you not to believe that the problem here is a particular flaw in blockchain technology, it is worth noting that the same basic situation occurred when using AI to support COVID-19.
There have been some interesting achievements – the COVID-19 Chest CT Pneumonia Scanner, an infrared scanner for body temperature, Nence’s study of COVID-19 literature, and clinical data. But, like blockchain, AI has been more on the sidelines than the focus of society’s COVID-19 response.
We have had some interesting achievements in applying neural symbolic machine learning and thinking technology to personalized medicine in the cancer field. They used their genomic and clinical characteristics to predict which cancer drugs will work in which patients.
At the start of the pandemic, we found some wonderfully forward-thinking doctors, Ray & Roger Ng, founders of the Care Protocol. They were interested in working together to use similar techniques to predict which combination of COVID-19 antivirals should be used for which patients. Should work fine – except that the Food and Drug Administration is still pending approval for the clinical trial in the US. It’s great that the approvals for COVID-19 vaccines have accelerated, but regrettably that the same specialty treatment hasn’t been extended to AI-driven therapeutics as the one that SingularityNET was involved in.
See also: Ben Goertzel – Decentralized technology will be ready for the next human crisis
For those of us in the middle of the blockchain / AI space, it is obvious what a radical force these technologies could have helped in a pandemic. Compared to problems like switching the global financial ecosystem to DeFi or creating a decentralized, beneficial AGI, pandemic relief doesn’t even put as much of a strain on our available software and algorithms. But what our tools can do doesn’t matter if neither the general public nor major societal decision-makers understand the value and can see it when it matters.
Ultimately, the failure of blockchain and AI tools to make a massive and pivotal contribution to fighting the pandemic is due to the same factors that are slowing their adoption overall: making clear the general value and importance of our technology outside of our own specialty Communities. If our experience using our advanced technology in support of COVID-19 serves as a wake-up call in this regard, then it is well worth the effort.