Technology Isn’t Omnipotent, and Covid-19 is Teaching Us Humility: In Conversation With Professor Ji Bo

Today’s Guest: Professor Ji Bo, Assistant Dean and Chief Europe Representative at Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business.

(This article was originally published in Chinese on Oxford China Forum’s WeChat Official Account, OCFOxfordChinaForum, on June 4th, 2020.)

Today’s guest: Professor Ji Bo

  • Assistant Dean of Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business, CKGSB Chief Europe Representative;
  • Founder of Impact 17+1 Club;
  • Motivational TEDx speaker;
  • Founder of the ‘China Start! Qihang Zhongguo’ project, which aims to ignite the entry of global tech firms into China;
  • Appointed Distinguished Professor at more than ten top MBA/EMBA programmes, including at Institut européen d’administration des affaires (INSEAD), MIT, Tsinghua University, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Sun Yat-sen University (SYU), Esade Business School, and the Technical University of Munich (TUM);
  • Formerly held executive positions at Top 500 US companies such as Monsanto, Cargill, Pfizer, Wrigley, and Mars;
  • Author of How 5G is Changing the World and 3i Value-Driven Public Speaking Techniques.

Topic: Technology and Life Under the Pandemic

Key Points:

  • New technologies have played important roles during the pandemic, but still have room for growth;
  • 5G has been enormously influential during the pandemic;
  • Covid-19 presents a rare opportunity for the high-tech industry;
  • The pandemic will encourage reflection among diverse industries regarding the development of technology and business;
  • This pandemic has taught humanity about humility, as well as increasing our attention towards healthcare and the environment;
  • The pandemic may trigger an anti-globalization and anti-internationalist wave.

OCF: How have new technologies been used during this pandemic, and to what effect? Compared to previous epidemic control efforts such as campaigns against SARS and H1N1, what is the biggest difference made by new technologies during Covid-19?

Ji: In my opinion, new technologies brought about some useful effects, but also had disappointing areas. During SARS, which was more than a decade ago, it took us around a whole year to decode the full genome sequence of the virus. This time around, we decoded Covid-19’s genome sequence in a very short time, and published it in many global medical and scientific journals so that these reports were accessible globally. It’s probably accurate to say that the speed with which research was conducted about Covid-19 is unprecedented.

As a whole, I think we need to look at the impact of new technologies on this pandemic through four lenses:

  1. Testing: This time China started off with some issues in accuracy, but this was soon resolved, and both the amount and scope of testing caught up rapidly. From this perspective new technologies have helped massively.
  2. Contact tracing: We need to know who the patients have been in contact with. This was very difficult to find out during SARS, but now wireless internet access and the availability of a variety of apps made this possible. This was very important for combatting Covid-19.
  3. Vaccination: We know that the development of a vaccine is not so easy; for example, there is no vaccine for HIV to this day. But globally many research centres are developing Covid-19 vaccines, and dozens that have possibly entered the human trial stage, which is unprecedented. But what has disappointed many people is that a vaccine hasn’t been made available immediately. Usually, human trials for vaccines require 18 months, so I can totally understand this delay. However, from a purely technological perspective, this hasn’t yet been perfected.
  4. Treatment: The application of 5G, artificial intelligence, and big data for clinical diagnoses, epidemiological analysis, preparing plasma for recovery, etc. have been hugely influential. The only regret right now is that at the moment there’s still no specific medicine that truly and meaningfully targets Covid-19. At the same time, during the early outbreak of the virus, we didn’t know how to effectively respond to this kind of illness, which caused the situation to significantly deteriorate earlier on. This aspect hasn’t exactly been perfected either, which leaves us with things to learn and gather conclusions from.

During the pandemic, new technologies also played leading roles in economic and commercial fields, as well as in people’s lives. For example, the widespread application of office software such as Zoom made highly efficient remote work possible, and might even have advantages compared to traditional offline work. From my personal experience, online meetings cost less time and less money, which in turn increases participation even more when compared to offline meetings. In fields such as delivery logistics, environmental protection, waste sorting and disposal, etc., robots have also helped control the spread of the virus and make people’s lives more convenient.

OCF: In your opinion, do you think that the pandemic will encourage the development of high-tech industries such as 5G?

Ji: Personally speaking, I think that for high-tech industries this pandemic presents a rare opportunity, and will lead to significant growth. Covid-19 has released enormous potential in sectors such as digital media, remote work and education, digital business, etc. During this pandemic the use of remote work technologies grew by 537%, online education grew by 169%, gaming by 124%. At the same time, traditional industries will also quickly realize the importance of ICT (Information and Communication Technology), which will accelerate transformation and upgrades in digital fields. Technologies such as 5G, AI, VR, etc., will all be more widely applied in fields such as industry, transportation, education, etc.

At the same time, through this pandemic, we’ve also realized that many shortcomings remain in new technologies, especially in relation to application and research. As a start, AI has not been developing as quickly as we’ve previously imagined. For example, testing for Covid-19 requires relatively complicated calculations and formulae, but in my opinion, AI may be able to provide a faster and more convenient testing method. It can also help us place AI more accurately; previously we’ve been more accustomed to letting AI perform auxiliary tasks, but now we’ve come to realize that AI may need to take on some real responsibilities and solve real problems in order for us to grapple with humanity’s challenges.

The pandemic has also pushed both technology and business to aim for social good, and at the same time giving people deeper insight into necessary future targets in environmentalism, social development, and the economy. Now it’s time for us to think even harder about the kinds of problems technology should be solving: should it make the rich even richer, or should it aim to solve social issues? Similarly, before this, we didn’t take environmental problems too seriously and believed that wee as individuals can’t make real impacts. However, this pandemic has shown us that the emergence and spread of viruses is contingent upon every one of us. Countries around the world have quickly realized that the virus sees no borders. The pandemic also created huge economic difficulties for many, especially for low-income communities. In developed countries like Italy, 17% of children under the age of 15 are food-insecure. If this is difficult to imagine in a wealthy country, just imagine the massive scale of the challenge in countries that were already underdeveloped before the pandemic hit. Therefore I believe that we need to rethink our business models. In the past, business schools all mainly taught profit maximization, but now we should encourage profit moderation instead. Firms should promote a kind of growth that is both inclusive and sustainable. For example, before an investment, firms should consider and verify whether it can benefit sustainable development in the environment, the economy, and society as a whole.

OCF: During the pandemic, high-tech industries grew exponentially; after this period, do you think this wave of attention and emphasis on technology will recede, leading to a kind of post-development dénouement? Or has this pandemic brought about thorough structural shifts in popular perception and caused long-term effects?

Ji: First of all I think that this pandemic has taught us humility, and has made us recognize that our human scope of knowledge is too limited, too small. In the past, we had a kind of blind worship towards technology and believed that technology is omnipotent and seems to solve all our problems. But the moment this pandemic emerged it seems to have crushed humanity, even creating this doomsday atmosphere and reminding us of past disasters like the 1918 Spanish Flu, where tens of millions died in a few years around the world. 100 years after the Spanish Flu, and it’s just occurring to us that we’re still unable to combat these viruses after a century. With the development of technology, we’ll also find out that the more we know, the more we don’t know. So humanity needs to be humble!

Therefore I think that after the pandemic ends, it’s likely that growth in the tech industry will continue even more rapidly. I also think that the future of technological development will place a stronger emphasis on fields like healthcare and environmental protection, whilst other areas will shrink. People will become more concerned with issues of human survival. I’ve read reports saying that as the planet warms, more ancient viruses will be released from melting permafrost. And how do we face dangers like those? Covid-19 has made us realize that human survival is more important than sectors like entertainment and consumption. So I think that after the pandemic, there will be a stronger sense of urgency in tech development, as well as more focus. The future of technological development may be primarily directed towards how we can improve our immunity, increase our chances of survival, face viruses, and ultimately ensure species survival as humans. These questions will stimulate the market to pay more attention to sustainable investment.

OCF: During the pandemic, technology has made its way into every aspect of life. In your opinion, as we use technologies more and more often, do we need to improve and perfect rules and regulations surrounding personal information and privacy protection? At the same time, do you think these technologies have the potential for continued use after the pandemic?

Ji: It’s true that these types of technologies received a boost during this pandemic. To an extent, there is a level of contradiction between privacy and tech use; what we need is a kind of balance between the two, which then requires legislation. Over-emphasis on privacy may cause unrest and instability for society as a whole to some degree. But similarly, if we disregard privacy altogether, then personal rights and privileges may be infringed upon. In this aspect, the West is extremely keen on personal privacy, whereas China is relatively more moderate. Because I’m not involved with legislation, I can’t exactly comment on what is reasonable usage from a legal perspective. But in my opinion, I think we should be pursuing a kind of balance, which in turn should benefit the growth of our digital economy. I think that in the future China will probably be legislating heavily on this issue, especially since we can learn from the experiences and technologies of Europe. Europe is very much a leader in this field, with a very precise legislative framework.

Another possible trend in my opinion is a synthesis of technology and blockchain. We know that blockchain technology is based on data encryption, and the application of blockchain may satisfy both technological needs such as health codes whilst also achieving privacy protection. In a previous lecture, I talked about the concept of a data-encrypted society. Information intelligence contracts could be set up among individuals as well as between people and companies, and executed through platforms such as Ethereum. This method could possibly resolve the contradiction between privacy and tech use.

OCF: During the pandemic, we’ve seen a rise in distrust among countries; at the same time, Covid-19 seems to be pushing many industry chains back into China. Do you think international political shifts caused by the pandemic will affect tech development and application? Might technology be scapegoated among this new wave of diplomatic conflict?

Ji: This is indeed occurring. This pandemic will bring about a new global landscape, and at the same time will inspire a new wave of anti-globalization and anti-internationalism. This phenomenon is partially a product of anxiety surrounding international travel, and also partially caused by the worry that future pandemics might reemerge. Many Western economies were hit severely by Covid-19. Their over-reliance on globalization caused serious issues for their supply chains during the pandemic. For example, with America calling for many of its factories to return, the reason is they’re discovered that relying on countries with relatively cheap labour prices such as China to produce ventilators and masks during a pandemic is inadequate. Same with food and clothes. Global trade used to follow the globalized distribution model of ‘you produce, I design’, but the pandemic is kickstarting a new wave of anti-globalization.

In this kind of process, technology could become the scapegoat. As an example, foreign countries may decrease investment in incubating tech companies. I myself work in such an industry, where I might start with helping a company in Israel develop a tech product and then bring in investment from America. But at the moment we might see that the Americans don’t want to invest. Globally supply chains are all returning to their home countries; for example, France might have only been producing a couple million face masks before, but now as they demand all their national industries to produce it, their volume could gradually increase to the twenty-million range. These countries are starting to realize that they need their own supply chains and their own production abilities to cope with potential future pandemic outbreaks.

OCF: Do you think that Covid-19 will change our traditional understandings of society, families, and interpersonal communication?

Ji: Obviously it will. I don’t think the pandemic will end in a few days; it’s more likely that it’ll be resolved in one or two years when there are vaccines and effective medical treatments. This will greatly change our means of socializing, families, and lifestyles. After the pandemic, these aspects won’t completely return to the situation before either. For example, if people have been using Zoom for a long time, we might gradually find that video conferencing does not negatively affect work efficiency or progress, and then we might not have to go back to the office so frequently or at all. At the same time, the pandemic may bring a de-spatializing effect to both daily life and work. There will be more interest in HD video, artificial reality, VR, etc., which can introduce immersive experiences through lifestreaming and remote control for users. I communicate with my parents back in China through HD video, which helps us overcome spatial divides.

This homebound lifestyle in lockdown has also built a foundation for a de-spatialized online app market. 5G internet can help synthesize things like streaming platforms, mini videos, cloud gameplay, etc. In terms of work, things like remote conferences, remote contract signing, operations, and maintenance can all be run on 5G. Immersive socializing used to be stuck on a conceptual level, but now as 5G is popularized for commercial use, it could also see improved potentials. People may even find that some aspects of online life are more efficient than traditional methods, as they cost less time and money, can happen anywhere and at any time, and give users more freedom to manage their time.

OCF: Could tech use during this pandemic inspire us in some ways? Are there any aspects we should especially pay attention to or reflect on?

Ji: I want to emphasize firstly that 5G played a huge role in this pandemic, and this was heavily mentioned in my new book, How 5G is Changing the World. Based on its high bandwidth, high speed, strong reliability, low delay, and widespread connectivity, 5G can greatly empower ICT technologies such as artificial intelligence, blockchain, big data, etc., thereby helping combat Covid-19 and accelerate recovery.

I think that infectious diseases and human development have a symbiotic relationship. Diseases have influenced human development profoundly. From the thirteenth century in China where rodents caused a plague break, to the Black Death in fourteenth-century Europe and smallpox in the Americas in the sixteenth century, as well as cholera and malaria persisting to this day and this new Covid-19 outbreak, infectious diseases have always been a challenge that humanity must constantly contend with. Outbreaks have been especially frequent in the last ten years. According to WHO records over the last decade, in the last eighty years there have been more than twenty serious multinational disease outbreaks, with around 60% occurring in the 21st century and eight in the last ten years, such as SARS, MERS, Ebola, H7N9, African swine fever, etc. These events are closely connected to human activity as well as climate change, so we must emphasize technological improvement and sustainable development.

This is the reason I founded Impact 17+1 Club in London last year, running monthly iTalk lectures; I really want to emphasize that technology must help empower global sustainable development. ’17’ refers to the 17 SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) set out by the United Nations, and these 17 Goals rely on ‘1’, referring to everyone’s participation, in order to be realized. Technology should contribute efforts to promote humanity’s sustainable development, whose implementation must start from tasks such as energy conservation, pollution reduction, green environmental conservation, building a green economy, etc.

Professor Ji speaking at an Impact 17+1 Club event in London.

In a sense, the challenge brought about by the pandemic has only just begun. Scientists estimate that there are between 1.5 million to 5 million types of fungi in the world, but we only know of around 100 thousand.  For us these all signify enormous crises in the future, especially as glaciers melt and ancient viruses are released, possibly causing disaster for humans. Our technological development should aim for these questions. That’s the last thing I want to talk about.


Lead Planning: Qifeng He

Executive Planning: Yiqi Shi, Ziyi Shui

Interview: Qifeng He

Copywriting: Qifeng He, Harry Liang

Editing: Yifan Zhao

Typesetting: Ally Bo

Translation: Irene Airuo Zhang

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