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As the coronavirus continues to bring a great deal of uncertainty to our world, one thing is clear: the business community is on the frontlines of the fight against the pandemic, demonstrating unparalleled agility and innovation to help our country navigate this health and economic crisis as fast and effectively as possible.
The U.S. Chamber Foundation’s Corporate Citizenship Center is interviewing business leaders driving the global corporate response to COVID-19 to learn more about their efforts, how they are navigating this uncharted territory, and what advice they have for others.
Read on to hear from David Levy, Vice President of Amazon Web Services, to learn how AWS has helped public and private sector clients leverage the cloud to power telework and distance learning, accelerate medical research, and understand disease transmission during COVID-19. What follows has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Q. Can you tell us about your efforts at Amazon Web Services (AWS) to address the impacts of COVID-19?
A. As a global company, AWS is closely monitoring the impacts of COVID-19. We’re acutely aware of the impact this is having on families, businesses, and communities, and we’re committed to supporting our customers and communities during this critical time. The very nature of our business – enabling organizations to access scalable, dependable, and highly secure computing power – has meant we are naturally playing an important role in the response to the pandemic, both at a global and local level. Across the company, we have been taking steps to help – and we will continue to do more.
We’ve been focused on supporting customers around the world to keep businesses running and classes going, as well as to speed research projects. COVID-19 made clear that people expect the same world-class technology from government and other public sector organizations that they expect when they log onto Netflix or shop online. And COVID-19 laid bare that sometimes technology platforms are the only interface organizations will have with their customers, so failure is not an option. Citizens are turning to their national and local governments every day for information – so those agencies have to deliver. And when COVID hit, we quickly learned that legacy IT systems were no match for the crisis that ensued. AWS has helped organizations quickly adapt to this soaring demand for help and information, and implement innovative solutions that help people access critical resources.
Our Public Sector business has worked with customers to address three main challenges: 1) designing new solutions to tackle COVID-19, 2) adopting new technology to solve the challenge of social distancing, and 3) migrating to the cloud to build solutions that were simply impossible to build with legacy IT. We are committed to our customers for the long-haul, and we’ll continue to help them leverage the cloud to power telework and distance learning, accelerate medical research, distribute unemployment benefits, and understand disease transmission.
Q. From data analytics to artificial intelligence, tech-driven solutions have been shaping the global COVID-19 response. How is AWS leveraging data and emerging technology to inform our understanding of COVID-19 and deliver solutions?
A. Early on, one area where AWS saw an urgent need was in the research and development of diagnostics. By providing data and cloud-based tools, we knew we could help experts better understand and track the coronavirus, and more effectively test people for COVID-19. In March, we launched the AWS Diagnostic Development Initiative—a program to support customers who are working to bring better, more accurate diagnostics solutions to market faster and promote better collaboration across organizations that are working on similar problems. This included an initial investment of $20 million to accelerate diagnostic research, innovation, and development to speed our collective understanding and detection of COVID-19 and other innovative diagnostic solutions to mitigate future infectious disease outbreaks. We’ve seen really innovative submissions, such as the development of at-home test kits, DNA testing, and applying AI to medical imaging to detect COVID-19 faster.
AWS has also applied machine learning to help researchers navigate a fast-growing body of coronavirus literature, so that they can better understand the disease and find new ways to detect and treat infections. In coordination with the White House and the Allen Institute of Artificial Intelligence, we launched a machine learning-powered search website that helps researchers quickly and easily search hundreds of thousands of research papers and documents using natural language questions. This search website analyzes more than 128,000 research papers and other materials assembled by the Allen Institute for AI. To date, we’ve had more than 46,159 questions asked from over 90 countries, including the US, UK, India, Singapore, Japan, and Australia. The faster researchers can find the peer-reviewed materials they need, the faster they can iterate on treatments.
Q. AWS is a member of the COVID-19 High Performance Computing (HPC) Consortium – a public-private effort to support COVID-19 research. Can you tell us more about AWS’ involvement in the Consortium and the value of cross-sector partnerships particularly in emergencies like this?
A. The concept of a COVID-19 High Performance Computing (HPC) Consortium emerged from a roundtable discussion at the White House in March and included input from industry, government, and academic leaders. This partnership between government and the private sector is accelerating COVID-19 research through the use of supercomputing. 16 research projects created through the Consortium are now running on AWS. These projects include an effort by 12 MIT researchers to feed vast amounts of data into a model that predicts which variants of a protein could help inhibit COVID-19.
So far, I think we’ve learned three important lessons from the Consortium. First, when empowered with the right tools, researchers can significantly accelerate the pace of their work. Tools including deep learning and artificial intelligence are reducing time to insight for researchers around the world. Second, there is no silver bullet. The diversity of the efforts in the HPC Consortium reflects the many dimensions to the health challenge posed by COVID-19. Third, we are only scratching the surface of what’s possible. The work of the Consortium demonstrates the commitment of a community of researchers and public sector leaders to test new ideas, iterate on others, and tackle the challenge of COVID-19 head-on.
Q. How do you think this crisis will impact the future of work and how can we ensure our nation’s workforce is equipped with the digital skills they need to thrive in the workplace of tomorrow?
A. Throughout this crisis, our customers have demonstrated that in many cases remote work can scale quickly, with the right technology and productivity tools. We’ve heard from some customers that the pandemic has given them an opportunity to rethink whether a portion of their workforce can continue to work remotely. Others have seen this as an opportunity to offer more flexible arrangements to their employees. I anticipate a lot of organizations will move to a more ideal hybrid technology model that seeks to achieve the best of both worlds.
This acceleration of cloud adoption has created a vast workforce development opportunity with hundreds of thousands of cloud computing jobs available worldwide. We’ve seen the power of the cloud to transform companies and drive innovation, however, the workforce isn’t meeting the demands of advancing technology. By 2022, the World Economic Forum suggests 75 million low skill jobs may be displaced but 133 million gained in part, because of new technology. We’ve also realized curriculum in most schools doesn’t provide students with skills for in-demand digital jobs.
To solve this, employers, the tech industry, educational leaders and policy makers will need to work together to address the issue.
This is why AWS has launched statewide collaborations with government and education leaders across Texas, Virginia, and Louisiana, as well as international efforts at institutions in Bahrain and the U.K., with plans to scale across the world. Within each state, academic institutions will leverage AWS Educate to build computer and data-related skills for K-12 curriculum, as well as associate’s or bachelor’s degree programs. The statewide initiatives also work with employers in the state that have a growing need for cloud-skilled talent. The workforce of today and tomorrow must be educated now and it will take education, industry, and government working together to skill-up students for the workforce.
Q. Over the course of this crisis, we’ve seen unprecedented agility and ingenuity from the business community, as they’ve rearranged operations or shifted production overnight to lead the fight against this pandemic. What do you think this crisis has shown about the role of business in society?
A. At AWS, we know that we have an important role to play in applying our technological and logistics expertise to solve the challenges caused by COVID-19. In addition to the need for private sector innovation, I think this crisis has really highlighted the importance of partnerships between business and the public sector. Public-private partnerships are critical because they bring together a diverse group of views, capabilities, and resources to solve big challenges, typically ones that each sector could not solve. This is a global health emergency that will only be resolved by governments, businesses, academia, and individuals working together to better understand this virus and ultimately find a cure. For instance, we’re seeing technologists lend physical resources and expertise to researchers and scientists who are working rapidly to understand COVID-19 and develop therapeutics and vaccines. This application of technology to a global crisis is not new, but the real-time sharing of broad-based research, data, and peer feedback is a foundational shift for public health organizations, universities, and governments.
For example, AWS and the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) recently announced the creation of the Coronavirus Genome Sequence Dataset to support COVID-19 research. The dataset is hosted by the AWS Open Data Sponsorship Program and accessible on the Registry of Open Data on AWS, providing researchers quick and easy access to coronavirus sequence data at no cost for use in their COVID-19 research. The NCBI Coronavirus Genome Sequence Dataset makes over a decade of viral genome data publicly accessible for researchers, empowering anyone in the research community to participate in the pandemic response.
For more interviews with business leaders visit the U.S. Chamber Foundation Corporate Citizenship Center’s Business in Action Series.