COVID-19: Computer scientists and CS students can act proactively for good

Contributed by Ronald Baecker, who is an Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at the University of Toronto, co-author of The COVID-19 Solutions Guide and author of Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives (OUP, 2019).

Readers of my blog will recall what I describe as digital dreams and digital nightmares.

Our world has been enriched by digital technologies used for collaboration, learning, health, politics, and commerce. Digital pioneers imagined giving humanity greater control over the universe; augmenting knowledge and creativity; replacing difficult and dangerous physical labour with robot efforts; improving our life span with computationally supported medicine; supporting free speech with enhanced internet reason and dialogue; and developing innovative, convenient, and ideally safe products and services.  Online apps and resources are proving very valuable, even essential, in the era of COVID-19.

Yet there is much that is troubling. We depend upon software that nobody truly understands and that is vulnerable to hackers and cyberterrorism. Privacy has been overrun by governments and surveillance capitalism. There are signs of totalitarian control that go way beyond those envisioned by the Panopticon and 1984. The internet floods us daily with news tailored to match our opinions and prejudices with an increasing inability to tell what is true and what is false. Our children are addicted to their devices. We have become workaholics. Jobs and livelihoods are being demolished without adequate social safety nets. A few digital leviathans threated to control not only their domains, but all commerce. Finally, there is huge hype associated with modern artificial intelligence, resulting in huge risks to society stemming from premature use of AI software.

Yet there are many ways in which computer scientists and digital media professionals can do good rather than evil.  Even students can make a difference.  An example, in this era of COVID-19, is a grade 12 Toronto high school student Adam Gurbin.

In January, Adam founded and now leads Canada’s first high school-based e-NABLE Chapter (e-NABLE Toronto), allowing over 20 of his fellow students to become part of a global humanitarian network that uses 3D printing technology to create mechanical prosthetics for children and adults in need. He organised and trained many of the students in 3D printing. He also led fundraising and social media marketing initiatives.

Also, to help fight COVID-19, he has recently dedicated his self-made cryptocurrency mining rig (which includes GPUs) to run protein folding simulations.  Adam brought the Toronto e-NABLE team onboard to accelerate this research which is being aided by a distributed network of computing power — Folding@Home — from close to 1,000,000 participants worldwide.

Most recently, after schools closed in March, Adam pivoted his 3D printing. He and other e-NABLE volunteers are now working with teams from University of Toronto and McMaster University to create 3D printed face shields/frames to send to frontline workers.  Adam has printed and sent out over 200 face shields from his home in the past two weeks, devices that are now being used in Toronto hospitals.  After discovering that some face shield designs were too big for some printers, and noting that they ideally need to be stackable, Adam is now working on new design using two pieces that can snap together with a sufficiently strong mechanism. Stay tuned!

How does he feel? A shy but articulate young man, Adam Gurbin is “just happy to be able to use his talents to help people.”


If you are a computer scientist or digital tech professional or student, or you have one as a relative or friend, consider how to make a difference, now, just as Adam has.

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