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Sami Mahroum
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This week, PS talks with Sami Mahroum, a professor at the Free University of Brussels and a senior fellow at the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut.

Project Syndicate: In April, you discussed the psychological dimension of social-distancing rules, calling the unprecedented COVID-19 lockdowns “a major test of the extent to which entire populations can adhere to strict government measures.” Why have Americans done particularly poorly on this test, and what approaches are best suited to help the US contain the virus?

Sami Mahroum: Americans have always had a complicated relationship with government, which they tend to view as a bureaucracy that should do as they say, not tell them what to do. By their logic, government is there to serve the people, not the way around. If the government demands that the people “serve” it by complying with particular rules, it is impinging on their freedom. Since “freedom” from tutelage and official constraint is widely regarded as the country’s raison d’être, even easy-to-follow public-health regulations are anathema to many Americans.

During the COVID-19 crisis, the US government might be more successful with a softer approach that nudges people into altering their behavior by appealing to their sense of solidarity and compassion. Americans also like acts of heroism, so portraying, say, mask wearing as an honorable sacrifice – rather than a display of weakness, as many view it now – could help.

PS: In December 2018, you acknowledged the promise of artificial intelligence in medicine, but warned that AI innovators and regulators alike must “heed the lessons of past technological revolutions that failed.” AI has been applied to virtually all aspects of the COVID-19 response, from accelerating vaccine research and predicting the virus’s evolution to improving early-warning tools. What pitfalls may lie ahead?

SM: Rushing any new technology, AI-based or not, to market raises the risk of inaccuracies, malfunction, and failure. When that technology is deployed in the health sphere, it is even more dangerous. Its failure could put lives at risk.

For an established technology, with a proven record of safety and effectiveness, the occasional failure can usually be tolerated. If a new technology fails, even just sometimes, there is no telling what damage it could do. Moreover, that failure can cause it to be abandoned altogether, even if, had it not been rushed, it may have become a beneficial innovation.

So far, the deployment of AI has not produced cutting-edge solutions to the COVID-19 crisis. On the contrary, the most effective technology we currently have is the clinical mask, the use of which goes back to the 1960s. The fact that there is any controversy surrounding its use today is surprising, to say the least.

PS: You advocate a “machine-for-man” model, in which technological innovation is harnessed in ways that boost human agency. To that end, you argue that “governments should come together to enact the appropriate legal, regulatory, and institutional support systems to guide the development and implementation of new technologies.” With the pandemic likely to have a lasting effect on the direction of technological innovation, what type of framework should policymakers design?

SM: They should design a framework that recognizes technology as an extension and enabler of human agency. When people work or learn remotely, deliver or receive tele-medicine, lend or lease autonomous machines, they are participating in economic exchanges. It is up to governments to develop legal and regulatory frameworks that govern actors’ rights and responsibilities in these exchanges.

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Moreover, the ability to use technology to deliver value on our behalf, such as by working remotely, should be recognized as a “formal form of labor,” separate from the requirement of physical presence. People should be able to “sell” – that is, charge a premium for – appearing in situ, thereby capturing a larger share of the productivity gains created by technology.

PS: In the longer term, you have argued, the impending “technological revolution” could “abolish all necessary work, giving rise to societies built around leisure and a classical ideal of freedom.” But this would require Westerners to overcome major cultural barriers, including their “obsession with the work ethic” and “deep-seated resentment toward ‘free riders.’” Will the pandemic’s massive impact on labor markets and workplaces make it easier to start differentiating between work that is “necessary for a dignified existence” – which could be all but eliminated – and work that is “geared toward amassing wealth and achieving status”?

SM: It certainly should. One might argue that the lockdown period triggered the world’s largest experiment in “universal basic income.” Most people viewed the distribution of direct support to households, as well as augmented unemployment benefits, as a necessary act of solidarity. For many low-income workers, it probably felt like a much-needed paid holiday. In the US, for example, an estimated 68% of unemployed workers who can receive benefits are eligible for payments that are greater than their lost earnings, owing to the jobless-benefit supplement that was included in the COVID-19 relief package.

Even more fascinating, however, is how many businesses – especially technology platforms, e-retail firms, remote services, and delivery companies – grew during this period. This indicates that many countries’ industrial structure can be expected to adapt to a new type of economy – one where, among other things, (leisure) consumers play a bigger role than labor.


PS: You have called the newly extended category of “essential goods and services” a “good starting point” for “a much more strategic type of stimulus than the ones that are on offer today.” For example, governments could “decree that businesses operating in essential goods and services must invest in securing supply chains or lose the right to trade in these services.” In which sectors would such a decree be most useful, and, more important, what does securing supply chains mean today?

SM: Historically, food and medicine supplies are the most common essential goods, and health care, transport, and policing are the most common services. Nowadays, one should add telecommunications and Internet services, as well as courier and delivery services. Securing the supply chains for these goods and services would mean investing in automating the human agency that drives them, moving activities closer to home where possible, and shifting from a just-in-time production approach to a just-in-case system. To reiterate, however, I recommend this for only the basket of goods and services that society deems essential.

PS: You have noted that economic resilience really depends on demand chains. Beyond investing in technologies that reduce demand-chain vulnerabilities by enhancing human agency (such as drones or companion robots), governments must “establish institutions to regulate the safe use” of such tools. Yet nowadays, demand chains are presumably as globalized as supply chains. Does this imply that multilateral cooperation is needed, or can countries make significant strides on their own? What can governments do – individually or otherwise – to make the most of demand chains?

SM: The first step toward answering this question is to distinguish among types of supply chains. B2B supply chains have become quite effective and, yes, globalized. B2C supply chains are also effective, and in high and high-middle income countries, globalized.

What I had in mind was the C2B demand chain – consumers’ channel for reaching out to business. Here, most existing technologies (largely online tools) are supplier-dominated and technology-push solutions. Consumers are an important source of innovation, but there are no regulations aimed at tapping this potential, and do-it-yourself tool are lacking. This is why B2C supply chains generate less innovation than B2B chains: consumers are viewed as a dead-end, rather than dynamic actors that can send ideas back along the chain.

One way to boost C2B innovation would be for governments and businesses to establish special experimental zones where consumer-led rapid prototyping can be quickly developed into licensed solutions.

PS: You advocate the creation of a “special international instrument for accountability and compensation,” to hold governments responsible for the consequences of their failures in protecting public health. In an ideal world, how would such an instrument be structured, and who would take the lead in creating it?

SM: The World Trade Organization could create a special vehicle to manage litigation between sovereign states, while a special Human Rights Court should be created to handle class-action litigation against specific governmental agencies. For this to work, the target of litigation should be the individual agency or department, as national governments enjoy sovereign immunity. By focusing on individual agencies, we increase our chances of securing the cooperation of national governments, while pushing agency-level decision-makers to take more responsibility for their actions.

PS: You wrote a book called Black Swan Start-ups: Understanding the Rise of Successful Technology Business in Unlikely Places. Which unlikely places are, or soon could be, nurturing the rise of such businesses today?

SM: I expect the number of “unlikely places” where technology businesses are emerging to increase dramatically, as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. Most people and businesses worldwide have now seen firsthand just how much one can achieve remotely. Furthermore, media reports indicate that an increasing number of people are flocking out of urban centers, in order to enjoy the space, convenience, and safety afforded by small towns and rural areas. This suggests that successful tech companies may soon be arising in small towns in the US and Europe, as well as in China and other developing countries with sufficiently advanced infrastructure to allow for distributed and dispersed economic activity.

Mahroum recommends

We ask all our Say More contributors to tell our readers about a few books that have impressed them recently. Here are Mahroum's picks:

  • The Technology Trap: Capital, Labor, and Power in the Age of Automation

    The Technology Trap: Capital, Labor, and Power in the Age of Automation

    I was hugely impressed by this well-researched book, which provides a fascinating historical analysis of the interplay between government policy and technical change around the world. At the same time, it provides clues about how similar dynamics may shape the ongoing wave of automation, and what that might mean for wealth distribution within and among countries.

  • Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor

    Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor

    Another well-researched work, this book describes countless cases in which the use of AI to make human-relevant decisions has replicated and reinforced systemic injustice toward disadvantaged communities. Thanks to an ethnographic approach, Eubanks is able to expose many hidden – and destructive – nuances of how algorithms work, ultimately showing that they can never replace human empathy and discretion.

  • A Modern Contagion: Imperialism and Public Health in Iran’s Age of Cholera

    A Modern Contagion: Imperialism and Public Health in Iran’s Age of Cholera

    Drawing on archival documents, Afkhami traces Iran’s experience with a protracted cholera pandemic, which began in the early nineteenth century and lasted until World War I. Two things in particular grabbed my attention. First, many clergy at the time responded to cholera outbreaks much like some religious leaders today have responded to the COVID-19 crisis, placing theological dogma ahead of scientific advice. Second, the cholera pandemic gave rise to Iran’s antecedent disease-control agencies and medical-research institutions. This made me wonder what new institutions will emerge after the current pandemic, at the national and global levels.

From the PS Archive

From 2018

In this PS Long Read, Mahroum warns that the hasty deployment of AI applications in medicine could backfire, at the cost of patients and providers alike. Read more.

From 2017

Mahroum uses data on patent filings to show how US President Donald Trump’s attempts to keep out Middle-Eastern immigrants undermines US innovation. Read more.

Around the web

In a recent commentary for The National (UAE), Mahroum shows what COVID-19 stimulus packages are missing. Read the article.

In a recent blog post for the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, Mahroum argues that COVID-19 should not be treated as force majeure, because it is clearly the result of governmental failures. Read the commentary.