The similarities in facts and fiction aren’t generally as obvious as in the case of 2011 Hollywood film Contagion, which today appears to be hauntingly prescient — almost like a chronicle of a pandemic foretold. Mass quarantines, food scarcity, endless queues and ghost towns due to a virus outbreak in the film make you feel as if we are living in a time that was well scripted several years ago. What is different, though, is the availability and use of sophisticated technologies that can, and in a lot of ways are, proving to be critical in combating the Novel Coronavirus and reclaiming our spaces.
Like Black Deaths in Europe during the medieval ages or the Spanish Flu outbreak in 1918, COVID-19 has exposed human fragility, along with the downside of an interconnected world. The only reprieve, thanks to technological advancements, is that we are more equipped than any era in the history to respond to a pandemic.
During the time of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak in 2002, it took scientists more than a year to decode the genome of the virus, whereas thanks to tech advancements, the Coronavirus genome was identified within a month.
With despair lingering and the world in disarray, had it not been for effective and advanced technology solutions, we would have been staring at an unmanageable crisis. China illustrates this case. By mustering resources at its disposal and deploying the latest technology, the country has mitigated the effects of the virus to a significant extent and profiled people at risk. Today, several affected countries are looking at the Chinese model of best use of technology to save their populations in this race against time.
It is known that positioning technologies play a crucial role during the time of crisis and disasters. Government agencies and first responders on the ground require precise positions to accurately assess the situation, pinpoint the most risky areas and carry out relief and rehabilitation efforts accordingly. In the case of epidemics and outbreaks too, GNSS comes in quite handy. In China, BeiDou, the country’s own GNSS constellation, helped track patients and affected places, thus containing the virus, apart from analyzing the pattern of the outbreak. With the help of reliable data and precise mapping and imagery, China could build thousands of new makeshift hospitals across the country.
BeiDou is being used by decision-makers for transportation planning. Logistics companies are using GNSS terminals to help ply essential relief goods faster. BeiDou also has a RDSS (Radio Determination Satellite Service) that is relaying information real-time. According to reports, the Chinese government was able to hasten the construction of two new hospitals in Wuhan mainly due to BeiDou. In Ruichang, Jiangxi province, the police forces are using BeiDou-enabled drones for monitoring congested public areas. The Chinese Ministry of Transportation was able to swiftly send emergency messages to over 6 million connected vehicles using BeiDou. The Chinese e-commerce giant JD also delivered medical equipment in remote hospital areas in Wuhan with the help of robots based on BeiDou.
While dozens of makeshift hospitals were being constructed at breakneck pace, their progress was continuously being monitored using GaoFen, a constellation of high-resolution earth observation satellites. Zhuhai-1 hyperspectral imaging satellite and ESA’s Sentinel-1 also helped in non-stop monitoring of hospital construction. The Wuhan University actively collected and analyzed multiple data sources and identified which site would be best suitable for the hospital.
TFSTAR, a second generation AI satellite designed by the Satellite Technology Research Center of University of Electronic Science and Technology of China (UESTC) and ADA-Space, is capable of powerful analytics and processing, which enables it to sift through the data. By combining TFSTAR’s data processing capability with geocoding, a health visualization of COVID-19 was created on which people could see the geographical reach of the virus and could find out the distance between them and active infection.
From preparing meals at hospitals, doubling up as waiters in restaurants, spraying disinfectants to vending rice and dispensing hand sanitizers, robots were on the frontline to prevent the spread of Coronavirus. In many hospitals, robots were also performing diagnosis and conducting thermal imaging. Shenzhen-based company Multicopter is using robots to transport medical samples.
A hospital in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, was being staffed entirely by robots. Wuchang Hospital, China Mobile and Cloud Minds, a manufacturer of Cloud-based robotics systems, came together for this project aimed at making the hospital facility completely smart and digital. Most of the devices in the hospital are IoT enabled and services are carried out by robots. The initial screening of the patients is done by 5G-enabled thermometers that send instant updates. Also, there are rings and bracelets that are connected to the CloudMinds AI platform so that it can monitor all changes in the body.
As per a Reuters report, a small robot called Little Peanut was delivering food to passengers on a flight from Singapore to Hangzhou, China who were being held under quarantine in a hotel.
CloudMinds alone has deployed 100 robots in the country’s hospitals. A few modified robots like Cloud Ginger (aka XR-1) and the Smart Transportation Robot carry food and medicine to patients from healthcare providers without any human contact.
Utilizing its sophisticated and expansive surveillance network for public good, the Chinese government joined hands with tech giants Alibaba and Tencent to develop a color-coded health rating system that is tracking millions of people daily. The smartphone app was first deployed in Hangzhou in collaboration with from Alibaba. It assigns three colors to people — green, yellow and red — on the basis of their travel and medical histories. In the industrial hub of Shenzhen, a similar software was created by Tencent.
Whether a person should be quarantined or allowed in public spaces was decided based on the color code. Citizens had to log into the app using pay wallet services like Alibaba’s Alipay, Ant’s wallet, etc. Only those people who were assigned a green color code could be allowed in public spheres after using the designated QR code at metro stations, offices and other public places. There were checkpoints at most public places where the code and a person’s body temperature was checked. More than 200 Chinese cities were using this system.
In some of the severely affected areas, where humans were at a risk of catching the virus, drones came to the rescue. Drones were transporting both medical equipment and patient samples, saving time and enhancing the speed of deliveries, while preventing contamination of medical samples.
Drones were also flying with QR code placards that could be scanned to register health information. Agricultural drones were spraying disinfectants in the countryside. Drones powered with facial recognition were also being used to broadcast warnings to the citizens to not step out of their homes, and chide them for not wearing face masks.
Antwork, a group company of Japanese dronemaker Terra Drone, carried medical samples and other essential materials in Xinchang when the city was grappling with the virus.
Access to public information has led to the creation of dashboards that are continuously monitoring the virus. Several organizations are developing dashboards using Big Data. Face recognition and infrared temperature detection techniques have been installed in all leading cities. Chinese AI companies like SenseTime and Hanwang Technology have claimed to come up with a special facial recognition technology that can accurately recognize people even if they are masked.
Smartphone apps are also being used to keep a tab on people’s movements and ascertain whether or not they have been in contact with an infected person. Al Jazeera reported that telecom company China Mobile sent text messages to state media agencies, informing them about the people who have been infected. The messages included all the details about the people’s travel history. CCTV cameras have also been installed at most locations to ensure that those who are quarantined don’t step out.
With the help of data analytics and predictive models, medical professionals are able to understand more about a lot of diseases. Baidu, the Chinese Internet giant, has made its Lineatrfold algorithm available to teams that are fighting the outbreak, according to the MIT Technology Review. Unlike Ebola, HIV and Influenza, COVID-19 has only a single strand RNA, so it is able to rapidly mutate. The algorithm is a lot faster than other algorithms that help predict the structure of a virus.
Baidu has also made tools to effectively screen large populations and an AI-powered infrared system that can detect change in a person’s body temperature. It was being used in Beijing’s Qinghe Railway Station to identify passengers who were potentially infected. The system can examine up to 200 people in one minute without disrupting passenger flow.
Alibaba has developed a Cloud-based Coronavirus diagnosis tool that the company claims is more than 96% accurate and takes less than 20 seconds to work. The tool uses AI to detect traces of the virus. Alibaba says that it has been used on more than 5,000 patients throughout China.
At a time of severe crunch of healthcare professionals and the risk of people-to-people contact, autonomous vehicles are proving to be of great utility in delivering essential goods like medicines and food items. 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.
China is not known to be a country that abides by individual data privacy as an inalienable right. In order to effectively fight the virus, it has created a massive surveillance system. The Chinese government is gathering people’s smartphone location data, body temperatures, travel history and other details in a centralized database, in which the data is being analyzed using Big Data and Machine Learning.
Thousands of facial recognition-powered CCTV cameras have also been installed at almost every quarantine center and only those who have been assigned the green color code are allowed to drive on the roads. WeChat, the popular instant messaging app that also has a digital wallet, is being used to collect data.
Using this data, the government can find out the number of people with whom an infected person was in close contact and order them to self-isolate themselves. For instance, if in the past ten days, an infected person bought biscuits from a grocery store using WeChat money or AliPay, the cashier at the store who was in contact with him, will be ordered to quarantine himself.
To mitigate the epidemic and accurately scan people diagnosed with the virus, countries across the globe are tracking smartphone data. For instance, in Australia, it has become mandatory for all mobile connectivity companies to save at least two years of data of every person, including data regarding his whereabouts, or simply location data.
There is no doubt that this data would be critical in examining the travel history of the person who has tested positive. It would also become easier to spot any phone that has been in close range of the infected person’s phone in the past few months. The owners of those phones can then be screened, irrespective of whether or not they have developed symptoms.
US, Singapore, Poland, Israel and South Korea are some of the other countries that are using smartphone tracking. It is believed that the British government is discussing the possibility of location data tracking with British Telecom, the country’s biggest operator.
A Washington Post report says that the White House is in talks with tech giants like Google and Facebook to effectively track user location data and gain insights from it. Further, reports suggest that most global telecom companies are planning to develop a comprehensive framework that will enable sharing of data on an unparalleled scale.
While there is no denying that the seriousness of the current scenario demands these measures, it is also essential to not completely ride roughshod over privacy. The ramification of these steps by countries and corporations could be ominous for citizen liberty and make surveillance a new normal, even in the most democratic establishments.
What’s worrying is that once the states get control of complete user data, they may consolidate a new database simply for the sake of a more intrusive surveillance system, or behavior adjustment. The ominous possibility doesn’t only end here. Bio-surveillance could emerge as normal. It is our pulse rate, blood pressure and other biological parameters that drastically change when we feel happy, sad and angry. If a government knows what makes a particular person cheerful or gloomy, it can very easily devise strategies for manipulation.
Going forward: Privacy implications
While such advanced technologies have come to the rescue of millions at such a critical time, they have come at a heavy cost — as far as privacy is concerned. China is already known for its iron fist control on Internet and an intrusive surveillance system, which has been considerably strengthened with the installation of facial recognition powered CCTV cameras in all major cities to fight the Coronavirus.
There is no doubt that extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, and getting rid of the virus, saving lives and resuming normalcy is of paramount interest. This has necessitated that the contentious privacy versus security debate is muted, and rightly so. But it will definitely flare up again, and a few months down the line, we may land up in a really complex situation regarding individual privacy.
As for whether the governments who have made ingress into the turf of personal user data will retract once the crisis gets over or further cement their grip over the control of individual data? There is no clarity yet.