Happy New Year everyone! A warm welcome back too to my Fortune “Eye on A.I.” partner Jonathan Vanian, who has just returned from paternity leave. Jonathan helped compile the news items, research, and Brain Food sections for this week’s newsletter.
I spent some time over the last few weeks reporting a story, which will be published soon, on how companies hope to use A.I. to help the COVID-19 vaccination drive. The global vaccine rollout, which is now underway, although progressing much more slowly than most would like, will be among the most important stories this year and it is one in which A.I. may play a role in at least four distinct areas:
•˘Triage and impact modeling. Figuring out which population groups should be vaccinated in which order to end the pandemic quickly.
•Demand forecasting. Determining where and when to ship doses to get as many people inoculated in the least amount of time.
•Supply chain management. Monitoring the vaccine production and delivery network for bottlenecks.
•Post-vaccination surveillance. Watching for signs of any adverse side effects from the vaccine that may not have been found during clinical trials.
Today I want to talk about just one aspect of this: demand forecasting. In my reporting, I spoke to Benjamin Fels, who is the co-founder and chief executive of a small company in Boston called Macro-Eyes. Fels is an intriguing character. With pale skin, piercing blue eyes, a receding hairline and a bushy, black beard, he reminded me of a 19th century missionary. And he is on a mission of sorts. His goal: to improve healthcare, especially for those in low and middle-income countries.
Fels first came across machine learning while working at a hedge fund in Chicago and London. He was intrigued by the idea that an A.I. system could be fed many disparate datasets, and, by sniffing out a few faint signals in each of them and then piecing together robust predictions that traders could use to make money in the financial markets.
But Fels didn’t want to just do well. He wanted to do good too. And he wondered what else the powerful machine-learning systems he was using may be able to do if applied to different kinds of data. “There must be, I naively thought, other domains where this is important,” he says.
He teamed up with Suvrit Sra, an MIT computer scientist, and together the two decided to tackle healthcare. “Our basic hypothesis was that healthcare, the practice of medicine, the whole issue of how you deliver healthcare, is an extended act of pattern recognition,” Fels says.
Their first customer after founding Macro-Eyes was Stanford University’s health system. Like many healthcare practices, one of Stanford’s biggest problems was no shows—patients who didn’t turn up for appointments. Macro-Eyes built a system that could reliably predict which patients were likely to miss appointments. Critically, it could also suggest alternative times and clinic locations that would increase the odds that a patient would show up.
The company has since applied similar technology in locations from Arkansas to Nigeria, with support from the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, among others. “We’ve gotten very good at predicting health seeking behaviors,” Fels says.
So what does this have to do with the COVID-19 vaccine? Well, in Tanzania, Macro-Eyes worked on a project to improve childhood immunization rates. Its software analyzed how many vaccine doses to send to each vaccination center. Critically, it also sussed out which families might be reluctant to inoculate their children but could be persuaded with the right message and an immunization center located in a convenient place. Using the software, the Tanzanian government was able to improve the efficiency of its vaccination program by 96% and reduce wasted vaccine doses to 2.42 per 100.
The lessons of Macro-Eyes in Tanzania are directly applicable to the COVID-19 vaccination effort, Fels says. Ensuring the efficiency of that vaccination program is essential because demand is likely to outstrip supply globally for some time and, particularly in low-income countries, each dose will be precious. Concerns about cold storage will be an issue in many places, even with vaccines such as AstraZeneca’s that can be kept at normal refrigerator temperatures. “We can’t afford to throw away 30 doses because we sent them to wrong place,” Fels says. “But if we allocate the vaccine strictly according to population we are going to severely under-allocate to some sites and severely over-allocate to others.”
To figure out demand, he says, Macro-Eye’s A.I. software looks at data sets that include geospatial data, especially satellite imagery, information on the number of mobile phone users in a given area, government and health system records if they are available, and sometimes even social media posts.
The company is used to having to get creative about the data it uses. In Sierra Leone, which lacked health data, the company had to figure out how to correlate information about local school infrastructure to make predictions about the quality of local health centers. It turned out that the teacher-pupil ratios alone were enough to predict with 70% accuracy whether the local clinic had access to clean water, Fels says. “Any one of these data sources on its own is usually of marginal value,” he says. “But if you combine them you start to get an accurate picture.”
That’s a good tip for using A.I. in business, as well as an example of A.I.’s use in the business of doing good. Let’s hope the new year brings many more. And with that, here’s the rest of this week’s A.I. news.
Do government deficits matter?
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In support of political contributions
Most Americans don’t want CEOs involved in politics. A poll conducted last week by Golin and Ipsos found only 41% favored CEOs weighing in on disputed elections, and only 43% wanted them speaking out on impeachment. On the other hand, 74% say CEOs should call for unity and a peaceful transfer of power, and 57% believe it was appropriate for CEOs to speak out after the January 6 insurgency at the Capitol. That pretty well tracks with the way most CEOs and business groups have behaved since election day. They kept their powder dry until all legitimate avenues for disputing the election were exhausted, then came out strongly endorsing the election results and attacking efforts to undermine them. Relatively few have backed impeachment. (You can see the poll results here.)
But how about political contributions? That’s the question raised last week, as a host of companies—Marriott, AT&T, American Express, Best Buy, Cisco, Comcast, Dow and Amazon among them—suspended campaign contributions to members of Congress who challenged the election results. Another large group—Microsoft, Boeing, Blackrock, Coca-Cola, JP Morgan, Ford, GM, UPS, Goldman Sachs and Citigroup—temporarily halted all political contributions to members of both parties. (Quartz has a more comprehensive list of what companies did here.)
Some business leaders are even contemplating permanently shutting their political action committees and exiting the money game altogether. But absent a broader overhaul of campaign finance—which is unlikely anytime soon—I think that’s a mistake. Most big companies remain balanced players in the money game, dividing their dollars roughly equally between members of each party. Walmart, for instance, has kept its contributions at exactly 50-50. Their strategies have less to do with trying to influence outcomes, and more to do with assuring they have access to whoever wins.
The more important question for 2021 is how big business uses that access. There are a host of issues where business has the potential to help broker positive outcomes for the U.S. economy and society: economic stimulus, infrastructure, worker training, climate change. On each of these, business leaders occupy the center, and can help bring the parties together to solve urgent problems.
But on tax and regulatory issues, in particular, corporations will be playing defense. And they’ll be tempted to use what influence they can muster to seek tax breaks and regulatory exemptions that aren’t in the broader public interest. That’s where the commitment to stakeholder capitalism will be tested. The nation desperately needs business involved in government. But business, now more than ever, needs to use its influence to focus on solving long-term challenges.
Why Big Tech regulation is good for private equity, according to one CEO
Increased scrutiny of Big Tech’s power may have some shareholders sweating it. But not so for private investors.
With a new Biden administration and recent threats to crack down on some of the biggest tech behemoths (from Facebook to Amazon), there seems to be support for more regulation. And according to alternative investment manager Hamilton Lane’s CEO, Mario Giannini, that might be good news for the private equity industry.
“Reducing the dominance of large technology companies…is probably not great for some portions of the industry, but good for private equity,” Giannini tells Fortune. In Congress, which now maintains a slim Democratic majority, “I think everyone is interested in saying, ‘Amazon is too powerful, Google [is too powerful],’ pick your name,” he says, arguing there’s bipartisan support for more regulation.
As to what lawmakers do about it, “I’m not sure,” says Giannini, but “to the extent that they do anything to diminish the power of those companies, that’s good for private equity because it creates opportunity for smaller companies.”
To be sure, government scrutiny of large tech companies is a tale as old as time, but lately regulators appear to be turning up the heat on the biggest names: Facebook was recently hit with an antitrust lawsuit alleging it has squashed competition, while players like Amazon and Apple, big winners of the pandemic era, have found themselves the subject of government ire over antitrust concerns. Google, meanwhile, is in hot water once more for its search and search advertising practices. And companies like Facebook and Amazon could be facing their own headwinds in Europe, too.
According to Giannini, whose firm has $73 billion in assets under management and advises on $474 billion in additional assets, the dominance of those FAANG names has been top of mind for private equity firms when scouting for deals.
“Right now, when any private equity [firm] does a deal, …if it’s not their first question, it’s one of their top three questions: ‘Is Amazon going to enter this space, yes or no?’ And that has a huge impact—’Is Google in this space?’” he says.
It isn’t just an issue in tech. Companies like Amazon are moving into health care, for instance, by launching online pharmacies. “If all of the sudden the government [would] say, ‘I’m not going to allow Amazon to encroach in certain areas,’ then I think for private equity, oddly enough, that becomes a net positive because you do then have an opportunity with other companies,” says Giannini.
Though some on the Street argue the threat of sweeping legislative changes to hamper Big Tech’s reach is still minor, the new (albeit slim) Democratic majority in Congress poses “a clear negative for Big Tech as…we would expect much more scrutiny and sharper teeth around FAANG names,” Wedbush analyst Dan Ives wrote in a recent note.
For private investors, says Giannini, that just “creates different opportunity sets.”
More must-read finance coverage from Fortune:
- What job security? Americans are feeling worn down and fearful of layoffs
- Coinbase is pegged for a valuation of up to $75 billion. Is that realistic?
- Still waiting on your $300 unemployment benefit to start? What you need to know
- The U.S. now has a debt level that rivals Italy’s
- In corporate America we trust? Despite perennial crisis, business reputations are rising