The good, the not so good and the downright Orwellian - Alibaba’s DingTalk take-up during the Coronavirus crisis

Profile picture for user mbanks By Martin Banks April 1, 2020
Alibaba Cloud’s DingTalk telecommuting service has been used to do some real good at a time of crisis, while some have used that same crisis to exploit some of its capabilities for more exploitative purposes. Smile and be happy! 

(via PIxabay)

Two stories about an Alibaba Cloud service show how the cloud is now powerful and flexible enough not only to do both selfless good and self-serving bad for people, but to hold up a mirror to humanity to show how good – or otherwise – they are in their hearts.

The particular service from Alibaba is its telecommuting platform, DingTalk, and perhaps the real irony is that the hook for both good and bad stories is the same crisis – the Coronavirus. DingTalk is said by some to be the Chinese equivalent of Slack, though with an estimated 200 million users compared to Slack’s 12 million it is has a much more dominant hold on its marketplace.

As part of the Alibaba Cloud, it is attached to a technology and user base that has some 10 years of being focused on providing services aimed across the whole Chinese marketplace, from large enterprises down to consumer users.

The good

The ‘good’ DingTalk story concerns how more than 440 medication institutions from 104 countries have come together to share and exploit their knowledge about the Covid-19 virus through the International Medical Expert Communication Platform, which in turn is a core part of the Global MediXchange for Combating Covid-19 program.

Set up by the Jack Ma Foundation and Alibaba Foundation, its goal is to provide a platform through which medical professionals can ask, and answer, questions on how to manage and, wherever possible, cure patients suffering with the virus. Most of the activity on the service so far has come from the US, Turkey, the UK, Pakistan, Spain and Germany.

It provides them with a full range of audio and video conferencing resources, ranging from simple person-to-person communications through to live broadcasts for the entire community on the service. It also adds real-time AI-based language translation, into 11 languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Indonesian, Japanese, Russian, Spanish, Thai, Turkish, and Vietnamese) together with a playback function which allows those unable to watch or participate in a broadcast to catch up with developments in their own time.

Using information that has been generated within the service, it has also published a Handbook of Covid-19 Prevention and Treatment that is available to all participants in the community at no cost, and in seven languages: Chinese, English, French, Italian, Japanese, Spanish and Turkish. 

This is both a good demonstration of the capabilities of cloud services and how they can be exploited to advantage, and how those capabilities can be used to build bridges of communication and resources across divides that have, until recently, been all-but unbridgeable…and still are to some extent. What it, and many of the other uses of technology emerging to help combat and contain the virus crisis, is providing is a collective first – really useful solutions to major problems that could not be achieved any other way.

Not so good

The downside, however, is that there will always be some people ready to use the same technologies and approaches to achieve ends that may be of personal advantage to them, but have a deleterious effect on many other people.

This side of things was reported recently by the Japanese-owned business magazine, Quartz, which summed up the issue with a telling headline: ` ‘DingTalk is probably one of the few apps that gets bad reviews for being really good at doing its job’. The issue is indeed the job, or more specifically the way those using it were applying its capabilities.

This came about when Alibaba adapted DingTalk to meet the needs of China’s huge online learning experiment introduced as a consequence of the lockdown which followed the emergence of Coronavirus. This has given the Chinese education system the tools needed to not only deliver classes and monitor pupils’ progress, but also monitor their presence or absence. As one might expect with school kids, this has not gone down too well, as one user succinctly observed:

I am really speechless, teachers require us to check in every day and gave us loads of homework.

Schoolchildren have therefore been giving DingTalk poor reviews. What has stirred the pot more however, is that the same technology has been taken up by many businesses that currently have staff working remotely, and they have done this because it has been equipped with monitoring tools that help company bosses keep an eye on those employees working at home. Bosses seem to have taken to these tools with alacrity. Their staff however have not, and Quartz quoted one user calling it "an Orwellian version of Slack".

It has a messaging function that allows managers to ping specific employees, not only in the app, but also via phone calls and text messages. The managers get read/unread status updates, so employees who don’t respond get noticed. Quartz suggests it is possible for a manager to send up to 10,000 ‘dings’ each day

The app also has a clock in/clock out function, effectively a digital punch card machine. This is a manager’s delight - being able to warn staff about how much time they have left to get to work and noting when they log-on to services.

DingTalk also has a facial-recognition option that requires employee to smile when they scan their face to check in or out. That does have a real Orwellian tinge to it, although to be fair most of us will have known a boss with a delicate ego which needs constant salving like that.

My take

Here is the same software, in the same crisis situation, achieving two markedly different results and, fundamentally, neither is Alibaba’s responsibility. What it does show, however, is how far software has now come. It also means that the headlong rush to build evermore powerful cloud-native applications,  now increasingly coupled with AI to supercharge the power and potential of what can be  delivered is a brilliant capability that has to be  treated with ever-greater levels of caution.

It is soon going to be the case that every application will be a potentially risky, two-edged sword where its ‘good’ purposes - for example facial recognition for security purposes – can be usurped for `bad’ purposes, such as needing to smile to appease the egos of the management and keep your job.

It may not be long before these applications, or their specific implementations and objectives, will need to face up to some level of independent scrutiny and validation as their probity, for the evidence is there to show that the cloud can also be used for purposes where we may not be able to spot the black hearts buried inside its implementation until they have started to bite us hard.

One thing these stories prove is that the technology around cloud-based services has reached such a level of capability that it now presents humanity with a blank canvas on which to paint whatever it wants. They are a demonstration of how one specific cloud service can be used for both good and, well, not so good (or more specifically really rather good for a minority and really rather bad for a majority).

It also shows that cloud services are set to significantly change many of the well established – nay, now traditional – ways it which humans interact with each other, in areas that stretch from the purely personal through to the exercise of business and political power on a mass scale. I am not foolish enough to attempt predicting how this will turn out, but all the signs are now indicating that cloud services are going to bring on some fundamental changes in the way they relate to each other.

It maybe also says something for the fundamental shift in the balance of power that is happening now. Cloud-based services are become the new ‘gorilla’ and as such it is going to get a growing number of both accolades and brickbats laid at its door. What is perhaps more fascinating is that is going to be responsible for neither the good or bad. Its capabilities – all that resourcefulness, performance, flexibility and adaptability - are giving humans the tools to enhance and implement an increasing amount of whatever it is they want to do, and it will be them that are responsible for what they decide to use cloud services to create next.