How emerging technologies help to combat coronavirus


Nitin Upadhyay

On January 9, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) released its first notification regarding the outbreak of epidemic in China, named as coronavirus or COVID-19. As coronavirus continues to spread and claim victims, it is of utmost importance to understand the role of emerging technologies to combat its outbreak. Several researchers, scholars and practitioners are experimenting with the latest technologies to develop potential solutions to deal with the epidemic. In addition, several trials and tests are being undertaken towards identifying breakthroughs in the vaccine. In some cases, technological interventions such as drones and robots are being used for surveillance, monitoring and service delivery. Even the use of artificial intelligence to notify the early warnings and to predict the spread of the coronavirus is considered as a novel approach in such conditions.

More like science fiction, the Chinese government is using drone technologies to control and contain the epidemic. In one of the videos that went viral, it was shown how a local cop controlled the drone and used it to scold the child for not wearing the mask. Not all drones were controlled by an operator or the authority. Few drones were used to capture videos of the potentially affected areas and tagged those videos on social media posts with information about using precautionary and preventive measures. Moreover, drones were used for thermal imaging-based diagnosis to avoid any direct contact with the doctors during tests and investigations. A doctor can easily diagnose the potential victim using measures based on various diagnostic parameters ascertained by the drone enabled tests and quarantine the affected person immediately to avoid a further outbreak. DJI, a drone manufacturing company, has adapted its Agras series of Drone to spray the disinfectant in potentially affected areas. The manufacturing company has helped large areas and many people from the risks of being exposed to the epidemic. Another drone manufacturing company, AntWork, is supporting contactless (or reduced contact) autonomous transportation services to share samples with public health practitioners. In Hong Kong, authorities took a strategic move to keep a check on the people who were quarantined temporarily. Each one of them was given the electronic bracelets which informs the authorities about their whereabouts and locations.

Big data and artificial intelligence technology also foray into combating the epidemic. A Bluedot’s natural language processing intelligent algorithm has taken a step ahead in integrating artificial intelligence with the multitude of data sources and commercial flight data over the big data platform to come up with the prediction of the spread of the global epidemic. The outcome of the algorithm could predict successful destinations like Thailand and Japan where people could travel out of Wuhan and thus accidentally channelise the outbreak to those places. Later, it was found that their predictions turned out to be true. Such an early warning about the spread of the global epidemic not only helps authorities to take precautionary measures but also assists them to take the contingency measures.

It is becoming difficult and challenging for social media companies to debunk the myths about the epidemic but certain steps were taken by social media firms to mediate the correct information to the public. For example, Chinese social media firm TenCent constrained the myths about the epidemic outbreak, and brought validated and verified facts from the doctors, practitioners, pharmaceutical companies and medical professionals on its popular social media app WeChat. In addition, for its one billion users it features an online map, on which subscribed users can check the location of the infected areas and can identify the colour-coded threat level indicator. Several other firms are taking advantage of emerging technologies to create many advanced applications to fight with the epidemic. For example, the biggest Chinese cybersecurity firm Qihoo 360 has claimed to create an application that informs the people to track if they have travelled with someone who has contracted the virus. Another tech company Baidu has developed contactless temperature detection and notifying technology which is now being used by the Beijing train stations to check passengers’ temperatures to notify the authority for necessary actions. Alibaba, a leading firm in China, has also collaborated with the government and private firms to develop an AI-enabled data collection platform for Chinese cities to provide support for disease monitoring.

In China, the epidemic also impacted many small and medium-sized businesses in availing export trade financing and other financial credit support. Moreover, amplification of lack of trust, poor verification process, lack of information sharing, difficulty in adhering to protocols and processes, and difficulty of timely supervision were quite evident. Chinese foreign exchange pilot blockchain cross-border project helped many small and mid-sized businesses. Blockchain technology is also seen to be utilised for the collection of more than $200 million loans through cross border which was not possible considering the conventional way of passing the transaction through the financial institutions that take days or in some case weeks for the confirmation.

It seems the Chinese government has adopted emerging technologies on account of public health contingency action plan. Such efforts and usage of emerging technologies throw some issues regarding the ethics of usage of technology. For example, compromising an individual’s privacy and freedom. But to fight with the epidemic do we need such a clear demarcation of the ethics or we just let the divide be blurred?