Last Saturday Apple CEO Tim Cook announced on Twitter his company would donate “millions of masks” for health professionals in the US and Europe. Vice president Pence later confirmed the American company would be giving away 2 million masks, but by March 21 Cook clarified the actual number would be 10 million.
10 million? How is it that a technology company is able to acquire more N95 reusable masks than most countries? The news articles covering the story simply note that Apple took the precaution to stockpile masks due to the wildfires plaguing California last year (the Verge quotes Cook’s tweet in saying the company is using “its supply chain knowledge to source, procure, and donate the masks”); yet the number of Apple employees based in their saucer-like Cupertino headquarters is 12,000 –even if they had the 2 million originally mentioned by Pence stockpiled somewhere, and are procuring the rest using their “chain knowledge,” that’s still more than 160 masks per employee (in contrast, Facebook is donating their emergency reserve of 720,000 masks, and they have 10,000 employees at their Menlo Park headquarter). Mother Jones writer Ali Breland allegedly attempted to get an official statement on this seeming overzealousness in Apple’s prepping strategies, but they apparently declined to comment.
Could it be there’s something more behind Apple’s massive stockpiling than fear of fires?
Early this year, when the COVID-19 wasn’t a full-fledged pandemic yet, I wrote an article about what we in Mexico experienced with the H1N1 outbreak in 2009 –including how Mexican authorities might have accidentally exposed president Obama to the virus during a state visit. As part of the story I included the strange saga of Veratect, a small “bio-surveillance company” which claimed at the time to have been able to predict the origin of the viral outbreak using AI algorithms and “a global network of multilingual analysts.”
As far as I could tell from my research for the H1N1 article, this company disappeared from the map in 2009. In January I wrote: “Were their predictive claims unfounded and part of a shady PR campaign, or did their AI technology go ‘underground’?”
11 years may not seem like a long time, but in technological terms it is an entire lifetime. In 2009 smartphones hadn’t become as widespread and ubiquitous as they are now. Facebook hadn’t become the despised Blue Big Brother we now know –MySpace was still a thing, for crying out loud, and your auntie wasn’t certainly in it!. During the first decade of the XXIst century people still thought about artificial intelligence only in terms of giant terminals beating Russian chess players, and the idea that one day cars would be able to drive themselves still felt like an utopia as improbable as lunar colonies and jetpacks. Oh, and the TV series Person of Interest wasn’t even an elevator pitch back then…
It’s now 2020, and whether we realize it or not AI is already impacting our lives in ways we barely perceive, driverless cars or not. AI-based predictive technology has become one of the biggest sources of revenue ever conceived by mankind –in this day and age an algorithm is more valuable than a diamond mine. So if a computer program can already predict when we’re going to order a pizza or binge watch Altered Carbon on Netflix, how difficult would it be to predict the next global pandemic?
Veratect’s bio-surveilance claims may have seemed bold in 2009, but in 2020 they feel almost quaint. The question is, then: If an IT technology were to develop such a viral outbreak predictive system, would they share it with the world for free, or would they keep it to themselves in order to protect their own interests and make a profit as a bonus?
The first thing American politicians did after they were briefed on the seriousness of the COVID/19 threat, was dump their share stock and divert their portfolio in ways that would take advantage of the impending crisis (like investing in work-from-home technology). Taking a wild speculation here, perhaps tech companies like Apple are already capable of detecting dangerous trends in global health, but as far as we can tell –following this subjective and totally unproven train of thought– they failed to ring the alarms with the WHO and national governments –although calling Trump would have probably been a huge waste of time.
But even if my tinfoil hat is blocking the blood flow to my brain and I’m writing out of my ass here, the question remains: Why are tech giants more interested in developing tools to sell us jeans and baby diapers, instead of keeping us safe from the oldest enemies of our species –viruses and microbes?
In his most recent article for Financial Times, best-selling author and historian Yuval Noah Harari warns us that after the worst of the COVID-19 catastrophe is over, there will be no going back to the way things were. We are already at a crossroads, in which on the one hand modern technology coupled with our current economic system will coax us to accept draconian digital surveillance tools, which will invade not only the privacy of our social circles, but even the intimacy of our biology. All in order to “keep us all safe.”
But on the other hand, we are still in time to change direction and demand that these new tools are used humanely in order to empower citizens and not governments or corporations, in order to make better informed decisions for the sake of our community and loved ones. The choice between 1984 and Tomorrowland* is still in our hands –after we wash them with soap, of course.
(*): A personal favorite of mine, and a much better quarantine movie night choice than Outbreak or Night of the Living Dead IMO.