China is Using Technology to Battle the Coronavirus – in Som…

The new strain of coronavirus is our current natural disaster, and drones and other new technology are being used to respond.

As Covid-19’s first site of attack, China has led the battle against the Coronavirus, and it has turned to technology as a tool to help stop the spread of the disease.  Currently, technology is being used to help identify those with a fever in an effort to help stem the spread of the disease.  According to a recent BBC article, “advanced AI has been used to help diagnose the disease and accelerate the development of a vaccine…Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce giant, claims its new AI-powered diagnosis system can identify coronavirus infections with 96% accuracy.”  Separately, Alibaba founder Jack Ma has just announced that his charity, the Jack Ma Foundation, will donate over 2 million dollars toward the development of a vaccine.

Emerging technologies such as AI, facial recognition, thermal sensors, and drones are being used to help prevent the further spread of the disease in China.  “In the battle against Covid-19, emerging technologies have stood out by making immense contributions in an unexpected, creative and amazingly responsive way,” said Lu Chuanying, a senior official at Shanghai-based Global Cyberspace Governance.

New technologies have helped “arrest or contain the spread of the deadly virus, thus becoming one of the most reliable and trustworthy means of combating Covid-19,” he wrote in an article for state-run China Daily newspaper.

Some of the ways that China is using technology to fight the virus probably won’t fly in the U.S. or other countries, however.  Personal body temperature scanning has become widespread in public places – and in some places, through the windows of residents’ homes.  Apps that anyone can download that inform you if anyone around is a risk for the virus might not be acceptable in other places: and police helmets that set off an alarm in case a fever is detected are unlikely to be implemented.

Disinfectant and Drone Delivery – Maybe.  Body Scans Through Your Window? Maybe Not.

image: DJI

China has used modified crop-spraying drones to spray disinfectant over public areas in an attempt to kill the virus.  And with more than 50 million people under quarantine in China, drone delivery has also been a critical tool.  Drones have been used to deliver supplies to people in quarantined areas, so that they do not have to frequent stores and markets.  While drones spraying disinfectant and drone delivery might be a good idea, both applications are heavily regulated in the U.S.: and regulators would need to grant special permissions.

Other drone uses may simply not be acceptable in other places – or even prove useful.  A video on Chinese-language news site The Paper shows that one Chinese community is sending drones equipped with thermal sensors and loudspeakers to check the temperature of people inside of their apartments through the window.  Through a speaker attached to the drone, officials ask residents to open the window and stand in front of it to have their temperature checked.

Alert!  Someone Has a Fever

The disease can be difficult to track, in part because many people who may have the virus do not experience serious sypmtoms.  One way that governments have attempted to track the spread of the disease is by monitoring body temperature of passers by in public places.  SenseTime, a  five year old Chinese based AI firm giant that sometime partners with US based Universities such as MIT, says its contactless temperature detection software has been deployed at underground stations, schools and community centers in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen.  Megvii, a Chinese technology company that designs image recognition and deep-learning software, has developed a similar temperature detection product which has also been deployed in Beijing.

“During this challenging time, we see this not as an opportunity, but our responsibility to do our part to tackle Covid-19 using our technology,” a SenseTime spokesperson told the BBC.

Chinese newspaper Global Times reports that officials in Chengdu city, Sichuan province, are using “smart helmets that can measure the temperature of anyone within a 5m radius, sounding an alarm if they are found to have a fever,” according to the BBC.  And, as Chinese citizens slowly return to work despite the virus outbreak, mobile phones have also emerged as a key tool to track the spread of the coronavirus.  An app called Alipay Health Code assigns individuals the colour green, yellow or red, depending on whether they should be allowed into public spaces or quarantined at home.  The app has already been adopted in more than 200 Chinese cities.

Is this technology really of help, or is it all for show?

“The state media apparatus, even under normal circumstances, takes every opportunity to send a message about China’s technological sophistication, even if a story has little substance to it,” notes Elliott Zaagman, who covers China’s technology industry and co-hosts the China Tech-Investor podcast.

“I suspect that most of the stories we see about disinfecting robots, drones, etc, are mostly just performative gimmicks. However, tech’s ‘less-sexy’ role in controlling this outbreak should not be dismissed,” he told the BBC.

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