- The global pandemic has a major impact on the functioning of our society and the demand for innovations
- Entrepreneurs from Twente and the powerful combination of knowledge and entrepreneurship have led to the development of many initiatives in the field of hygiene, respiratory equipment, protection for healthcare workers, new research and treatment methods and tracking technologies.
Technology never stops. When you download the CoronaMelder on your phone, you receive a warning if you have been in the vicinity of someone who tested positive for the virus for 15 minutes or more in the previous two weeks. You’d think that’s wonderful, but Verbeek knows it’s not that simple: “How far do you want to go, what social values are important to us? It should always start with that question. Technology has to serve society, not the other way around. Privacy must be properly safeguarded, for example, so the app works with anonymous codes. The fear that the government will be able to track all your movements through this app is also unfounded. The app uses Bluetooth, not GPS. It is also not registered anywhere if you have Corona.”
Verbeek’s speciality is precisely this interdependence between man and technology and its ethical side. He consulted both experts and citizens over the past few months. “A group with people from all walks of life, from train conductors to gym owners, was created. We asked them what they think is important in such an app. Health, freedom, solidarity and the economy were the most frequently mentioned. You do not install an app like this one for just your own sake. You also do it out of solidarity. That aspect is highly valued here in Twente. Privacy concerns turned out not to be at all prevalent among this group; they assumed it was well-organised”, says the professor.
What’s more: they felt that the app’s advice should be a little more compelling. “If you receive a notification that you have been in the vicinity of an infected person, you can just click it away. The group felt like there should be some time to reflect”, he explains.
The expected resistance turned out to not be so great at all. The app was downloaded more than a million times in just the first week. The CoronaMelder only works in Twente, Drenthe, IJsselland Noord and a large part of Gelderland for the time being, but it will probably be introduced nationwide after the pilot.
“Technology makes almost everything possible, but there are limits to what we find socially acceptable. You always have to start with those frameworks.”
Prof. Dr. Ir. Peter-Paul Verbeek, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Twente
Verbeek praises how the app was introduced: “implementing such an app has major effects. The ministry of health did not take this lightly and sought much advice; from technical and medical taskforces and behavioural scientists. After all, you can create the greatest technological feats and still have nothing if they are not accepted by society.”
The app gives the GGD valuable support with contact tracing. “Your memory will rarely be as accurate as the app, which registers who you have been close to in the past two weeks. There will also be some false positive reports. These can be created when, for example, you and another person are 1.5 metres apart, but your phones are not; they could be lying on the same table. Or because you were sitting close to someone on public traffic, but both of you were wearing face masks. Bluetooth is also a bit less accurate than GPS, but it is much better in terms of privacy since no one can see where you were. These are things that you have to consider every single time.”
Verbeek knows that a technological tool like this one will never stand on its own: “If quarantining would be mandatory, instead of just giving urgent advice, the government would have to create a good social safety net for people that are self-employed or have a zero-hours contract, who would otherwise have no income for a fortnight. You must always think about the social consequences.” This does not only apply to the implementation of this app, of course, but also to artificial intelligence and robots in healthcare, for example.
The professor is proud of the fact that the University of Twente contributes to solving society’s challenges in many ways. “It suits our changing role as a technical university.” Mayor Onno van Veldhuizen calls the latter “high-tech noabership”. We use technology to solve social problems. You should always approach it from that angle. We work on this daily in the DesignLab: Responsible Design in which society’s challenges are the starting point. The fear that technology will one day dominate us is also unfounded if you approach it in this way.”