With every passing hour, the world continues to grapple with the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic. The novel Coronavirus that first appeared in China has now spread its web across the globe, affecting many with each passing day. The deadly virus outbreak has, however, prompted innovation and the coming forth of various technologies. Tech, AI-powered or otherwise, is being seen in full swing to combat the little-known virus. New technologies are becoming commonplace as scientists and innovators are leaving no stone unturned to contain the spread and the far-reaching effects of COVID-19. At a time when school, colleges, jobs and daily life is at a standstill, technology has already started to make a difference.
The rapid spread of Covid-19 has forced countries to use every trick in the book to contain the disease. Some countries, like South Korea and Singapore, have done a better job than Italy and Spain. Asian countries have used a range of technologies in their fight against the pandemic, raising questions about excessive surveillance and the violation of citizens’ privacy. Here is some of the tech tools being deployed in different countries.
AI to identify, track and forecast outbreaks
The better we can track the virus, the better we can fight it. By analyzing news reports, social media platforms, and government documents, AI can learn to detect an outbreak. Tracking infectious disease risks by using AI is exactly the service Canadian startup BlueDot provides. In fact, the BlueDot’s AI warned of the threat several days before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization issued their public warnings.
AI to help diagnose the virus
Artificial intelligence company Infervision launched a coronavirus AI solution that helps front-line healthcare workers detect and monitor the disease efficiently. Imaging departments in healthcare facilities are being taxed with the increased workload created by the virus. This solution improves CT diagnosis speed. Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba also built an AI-powered diagnosis system they claim is 96% accurate at diagnosing the virus in seconds.
Process healthcare claims
It’s not only the clinical operations of healthcare systems that are being taxed but also the business and administrative divisions as they deal with the surge of patients. A blockchain platform offered by Ant Financial helps speed up claims processing and reduces the amount of face-to-face interaction between patients and hospital staff.
Drones deliver medical supplies
One of the safest and fastest ways to get medical supplies where they need to go during a disease outbreak is with drone delivery. In some of the severely affected areas, drones have come to the rescue by transporting both medical equipment and patient samples. This is saving time, enhancing the speed of delivery and preventing the risk of samples being contaminated. Drones are also flying with QR code placards that can be scanned to register health information. There are also agricultural drones that are spraying disinfectants in the countryside. Drones, powered with facial recognition, are also being used to broadcast warnings to the citizens to not step out of their homes and chide them for not wearing face masks.
Robots sterilize, deliver food and supplies and perform other tasks
Robots aren’t susceptible to the virus, so they are being deployed to complete many tasks such as cleaning and sterilizing and delivering food and medicine to reduce the amount of human-to-human contact. UVD robots from Blue Ocean Robotics use ultraviolet light to autonomously kill bacteria and viruses. In China, Pudu Technology deployed its robots that are typically used in the catering industry to more than 40 hospitals around the country.
Advanced fabrics offer protection
Companies such as Israeli startup Sonovia hope to arm healthcare systems and others with face masks made from their anti-pathogen, anti-bacterial fabric that relies on metal-oxide nano particles.
AI to identify non-compliance or infected individuals
While certainly a controversial use of technology and AI, China’s sophisticated surveillance system used facial recognition technology and temperature detection software from Sense Time to identify people who might have a fever and be more likely to have the virus. Similar technology powers "smart helmets" used by officials in Sichuan province to identify people with fevers. The Chinese government has also developed a monitoring system called Health Code that uses big data to identify and assesses the risk of each individual based on their travel history, how much time they have spent in virus hotspots, and potential exposure to people carrying the virus. Citizens are assigned a color code (red, yellow, or green), which they can access via the popular apps WeChat or Alipay to indicate if they should be quarantined or allowed in public.
Chatbots to share information
Tencent operates WeChat, and people can access free online health consultation services through it. Chatbots have also been essential communication tools for service providers in the travel and tourism industry to keep travelers updated on the latest travel procedures and disruptions.
Supercomputers working on a coronavirus vaccine
The cloud computing resources and supercomputers of several major tech companies such as Tencent, DiDi, and Huawei are being used by researchers to fast-track the development of a cure or vaccine for the virus. The speed these systems can run calculations and model solutions is much faster than standard computer processing.
At a time of severe crunch of healthcare professionals and the risk that people-to-people contact holds, autonomous vehicles are proving to be of great utility in delivering essential goods like medicines and foodstuffs. Apollo, which is Baidu’s autonomous vehicle platform, has joined hands with self-driving startup Neolix to deliver supplies and food to a big hospital in Beijing. Baidu Apollo has also made its micro-car kits and autonomous driving cloud services available for free to companies fighting the virus.
Idriverplus, a Chinese self-driving company that operates electric street cleaning vehicles, is also a part of the mission. The company’s flagship vehicles are being used to disinfect hospitals.
A startup in the UK recently launched an app for people to self-report their symptoms. C-19 Covid Symptom Tracker, which was downloaded 7.5 lakh times in three days, helps identify high-risk areas, among other things. South Korea has an app called Corona 100m that has mapped the locations of Covid-19 patients and alerts users if they come within 100 metres of an infected person.
India is also set to launch an app that will tell users if they came in contact with someone who later tested positive for Covid-19, as reported by ET on March 26. The app will be based on location data obtained from the infected person’s smartphone. It will also use short-distance Bluetooth signals between phones, like Singapore’s TraceTogether app, which helps authorities trace contacts of a patient
In an effort to enable contactless and rapid temperature detection, China is using AI-powered thermal cameras to identify those in a crowd who have a fever. The country is also deploying facial-recognition systems to identify those not wearing masks.
Possibly the most commonly used technology by governments, tracking people’s whereabouts through the location information provided by their phones has been crucial to identifying where an infected person went before being quarantined and how many people were in close proximity to the patient. Israel has allowed its internal security agency the use of its citizens’ location data for 30 days. South Korea, China and Taiwan have also used location-tracking widely to limit the transmission of the virus. However, in Europe, which has stricter laws on data protection, Germany and Italy are using anonymised location data to identify public spaces where people are gathering in groups by defying lockdowns.
The Coronavirus pandemic has become a global calamity, leaving millions vulnerable, economies shattered, and cities under lockdown. Beneath this deep dark cloud, these tech innovations are sure to be the silver lining.