From Danda to AI: Total lockdown needs a full range of technological support to be meaningful
It is barely eight hours from the declaration of total national lockdown, but one short visit to the milkman in the morning gave me an interesting insight in how we, the people of world’s largest democracy will execute the lockdown.
As I stood maintaining six feet distance from the counter and waited for the lady on the counter to finish her purchase, three more women brushed past me one-by-one without realising that I was waiting!
It is clear that seventy years of sovereignty has given us only one superpower, and that is being able to disregard the laws.
Indian approach to the state is that of a last bencher toward the teacher, as the main Indian brag in life is about breaking the rules. It is a matter of national pride that we are free people who do what we like, and as we now have a generation around that has not seen a real crisis, it is going to be difficult to change that with one virus.
This means that Indian policy-makers have a bigger challenge at hand than the virus and that is, we the people of India.
We are unprogramable and uncoachable free agents who can’t be made to act in a specific way. But, a lockdown, however porous is better than none, there is little doubt that we need it badly and hence, there is a need to bring as much tech-support as it can get to make it more effective.
Even if we can increase the lockdown effectiveness at this stage by couple of percentages using technology, it may mean saving lakhs of people from untimely death in long run.
The first and most effective technology that we need and is already being utilised is obviously a stout stick aimed at the posterior of the erring. It is probably the only technology that Indians seriously believe in, as givers and recipients, to yield result.
However unconstitutional and not exactly that the Supreme Court of India will be comfortable with, but a Danda in the hand of a policeman remains the only symbol that Indians look as an indicator of how serious is the state about a given rule. Till it is not lifted in anger, people know that state is bluffing and will carry on their way laughing at any rule that is not backed by it power.
As Dandas already out (and I do hope that they are actually used, but only towards the needy), it is clear that we are using the one technology we trust, but as we now are living in the age of technology, let us take a serious note of one bright spot in this sordid tale.
This pandemic is one of the first pandemics in the age of global connectivity that internet and now mobile phones have given to us. And even more importantly, we can also claim that it is the only pandemic post arrival of applied Artificial Intelligence.
As both inter-connectivity and AI make formidable allies when they work in tandem, it is time that we pitch them against the covid-monster.
Indian state needs to make a national App for smartphones and offer it in all metros to all citizens who want to get out of their homes.
It needs to be a simple app where one can register the purpose of visit, destination and duration. If need be, there can be an authority that can approve the visit, but even if it is kept low-tech and just self-declaratory, it is enough to start with.
Every such request must be registered and a conformation must be sent back that the person can show to the policemen who stop him/her on the road, and even if there is no AI backbone or GPS tracking, even a human check by policemen would be enough to verify if the person is purposefully travelling as declared or is a jaywalking vagrant.
If vagrancy is established and recognised through personal interaction, depending on how much tech-resource we have backing it up, the app can get locked disallowing the person any further travel till lockdown is over, or it can be kept low-tech with use of on the spot use of Danda-technology.
This simple tech-intervention will not only make the lockdown more effective, it will also help us track any flare up that may take place due to an infectious person moving about.
This app can also produce really useful data that AI can use for managing everything ranging from the requirement of essential items that state will have to cater to in a long lockdown or the deployment strategy for police forces to control movement.
It is a simple move, but can be a game-changer. And, it is very easy to create such an app and spread it across the population that is already looking at its mobile phone every five minutes.
The IT and AI backbone cost can be high but the one corporate I spoke to about it in Ahmedabad was excited about the idea to bear the cost, so it should not be difficult for each city-management to find resources for it.
As the need is urgent, it is best if this and many more such ideas are explored with due urgency as all hands are required to be on the deck if we want to sail safely across the troubled sea that we are facing.