We are yet to fully grasp the full impact of COVID-19 on our global economy and our day-to-day lives. But what is abundantly clear is that the pandemic is proving to be a huge catalyst for change and innovation. Naturally, the most notable agents of progress will be the most disruptive technologies and, more specifically, the innovative ways in which we apply them. So let us look at some of the most promising implementations of advanced technologies in our fight against Covid-19.
Data, AI, and Everything in Between
China was the first country to officially report a human case of Covid-19, but it was also one of the quickest countries to leverage technology to try and contain the virus.
A Shenzhen-based company called Kuang-Chi Technologies developed a connected smart helmet to help police and epidemic-control teams spot potential carriers. Using biometric sensors, the helmets are able to scan the temperatures of pedestrians in crowds from five meters away. Add to that an augmented reality visor, which, powered by facial recognition technology, is able to link the reading to the person’s name. The company had said that it had received orders for its helmets from Europe and Asia, including the Middle East.
Kuang-Chi isn’t the only company to provide such solutions though. Megvii and Baidu, two leading Chinese AI companies, have also introduced advanced artificial intelligence-powered temperature screening systems that have been deployed in subway stations around Beijing.
AI in particular has been a great boon for researchers during the pandemic. With its far superior ability to spot higher-order correlations, the technology is being deployed to sift through troves of medical data and help scientists find a cure. UK-based BenevolentAI work serves as an example. Its AI systems were able to propose certain existing drugs as potentially useful in combating Covid-19 after two weeks of being put to work.
Other use cases include detecting outbreaks by analyzing social media platforms, news reports, and government documents; improving CT diagnosis speed and accuracy; and powering chatbots to deliver relevant health consultation online, just to name a few.
Little Robot Helpers
Over in Singapore, authorities have put Boston Dynamics’ doomsday-inspiring robots to work, namely, to scour parks while emitting pre-recorded messages urging visitors to respect social distancing rules. The robots are also equipped with cameras authorities say will be solely used to count the number of visitors in the park – no personal data will be collected and no individuals will be identified.
The robot in use is called Spot, and Spot has been getting his or her share of the spotlight during the pandemic. Back in April, Boston Dynamics had announced that this particular model was already being used to help with coronavirus treatment at a hospital in Boston. Namely, the hospital had equipped the robot with an iPad that is used for video conferencing, effectively turning the four-legged mechanical beast into a telemedicine machine. Spot had the responsibility of visiting patients suspected of having COVID-19 in improvised tents right outside of the hospital for their initial screening with a doctor.
Drones have also been cleverly repurposed. The Fort Worth police department in Texas for example used drones to broadcast messages and inform the city’s homeless population about the spread of COVID-19 and related safety measures. In China, drones have been used to spray disinfectants in public spaces, deliver medical supplies, and transport samples.
I want to finish with a heart-warming story from the Za’atari camp in Jordan, where robotics-trained Syrian refugees have designed a mechanized hand sanitizer. The robot is made from Lego bricks, which, combined with a sensor, a few motors, and a wee bit of code, is able to dispense sanitizing gel without being touched.
The solution may be modest, there are no neural networks involved, but it works, and the motive is noble. What’s more, it goes to show that everyone can be playing a constructive part.
In a video produced by the UNHCR demonstrating their concoction, team member Marwan elaborated on the project. ’We made this robot to contribute, as refugees. We want to be part of the fight against coronavirus,’’ he says, before adding that their aim is to serve both the local community in Za’atari camp as well as people outside the camp in all of Jordan.
And they’ve already achieved that goal. “Even people with robotics experience, they asked us about the design and the programming of this robot,” he added. “And we as refugees, must help and so we offered them this information and they then made more than one robot.”