Stanford virtual conference will focus on ways AI can aid COVID-19 recovery

At a Stanford HAI conference, experts will discuss vaccine development, the future of work, privacy and contact tracing, 2020 elections, and other major issues arising from this pandemic.

Months into the COVID-19 pandemic, shelter restrictions are beginning to lift and people are experimenting with a slow return to a new normal. While prospects for moving to a post-pandemic world remain highly uncertain, we are seeing major shifts in how we conduct business, resume education, interact socially and think globally.

Rob Reich is associate director of the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence. (Image credit: Courtesy Stanford HAI)

On June 1, the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence (HAI) will bring together scholars and industry experts to discuss this future in a virtual conference that is open to the public, titled “COVID + AI: The Road Ahead.” What is the path ahead, economically, medically and culturally?

Here, Stanford HAI associate director Rob Reich, a professor of political science in the School of Humanities and Sciences and the faculty director of the Stanford McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, explains what viewers can expect from the event.


What is the purpose of the “COVID + AI: The Road Ahead” conference?

During HAI’s first COVID conference on April 1, we had just entered shelter-in-place restrictions in Northern California. We were just beginning to adjust to this profound disruption in every aspect of our lives. Now that we’ve reset our expectations and understand that living with COVID-19 will be here for the foreseeable future, we are looking for paths out of our current confinement. We need to begin to plan for a future in which every aspect of our lives has been upended, and we have to proactively seek to rebuild our economy, our health care system, our schools and universities, our workplaces and our personal lives.

This conference will discuss how to confront the coronavirus pandemic with an eye toward AI but also looking more broadly at the wide array of issues that HAI-affiliated scholars work on. That includes vaccine development and drug treatments for COVID-19, the role of automation in replacing or mitigating the risks of dangerous work performed by human labor, the economic implications of the pandemic, the ethical and social dimensions of pandemics, such as protecting individual privacy while pursuing contact tracing or combating the “infodemic” of online disinformation. There are so many different issues the pandemic raises as a society, and the human-centered approach is the right approach to take.


Can AI solve our post-COVID problems?

AI provides for extraordinary opportunities to accelerate solutions to problems when it’s harnessed to human interest and social benefits. But AI is not a magic dust you sprinkle on anything to make the world a better place.


Who should attend this conference?

There’s going to be material that will be of interest to anyone and everyone, from information on the medical frontier to the economy, politics and education. We’ll have three sessions: one on the economic road out of COVID; the medical road forward; and humanity’s road forward.

And the speakers aren’t pundits – this will not be an airing of opinions. They are speaking from the basis of their research in an attempt to inform the public, policymakers and other leaders across industry, civil society and government.


What other pressing issues will this conference address?

There are extraordinary political implications that this conference will tackle, particularly what it means to conduct the November U.S. elections in a safe way. If there’s a second wave of COVID-19 in the fall, we need to understand what the implications are for holding a healthy election and how to avoid, if possible, the spread of misinformation and disinformation about the coronavirus as part of the politics of the election. Now is the time to think through all these issues, not in September, not in October.

And more broadly than the election, there are profound geopolitical consequences: What will the world order look like when we emerge from the pandemic? There are questions about the EU, China, the United States, multilateral organizations like the World Health Organization, whether the global south will be as severely affected as the global north has been. These outstanding questions about politics are still on the horizon to be answered.


What do you want people to take away from the conference?

Some people have referred to this pandemic as completely unanticipated, a shock from nowhere. But any student of history, or anyone who watched Bill Gates’s 2015 TED talk, knows that pandemics have happened in the past and the question is about our capacity to confront a biological phenomenon that has recurred over and over again. We all remember our lives before COVID-19 hit, and we thought to ourselves this seemed a remote possibility. Now I hope everyone has been reminded that these occur frequently across history and cause social disruptions and economic reorderings. Our task is to emerge from this pandemic with greater resilience, a stronger economy and a rebuilt public health structure, so that when the next pandemic happens, we are better prepared.