In some Chinese hospitals, robots clean, remove contaminated items, and deliver food and medicine to patients to keep humans from spreading the new coronavirus. The robots can work for up to eight hours after charging for 20 minutes and return to the charging station when their power runs low. Not only are they more sanitary, but they also save time and conserve the protective gear workers must don when they see patients, Luo Xiaodan, deputy director of Guangdong Provincial People’s Hospital, told China Daily.
No other pandemic fight has had as much assistance from robots, drones, and artificial intelligence as the new coronavirus outbreak. But the extensive use of technology in public health also poses new risks to privacy that could last long after COVID-19 dies out.
Some tech companies are donating their products to help keep the public safe. Dimer UVC Innovations is offering free use of its GermFalcon machine to airlines at select U.S. airports during the outbreak. The robot uses ultraviolet light to kill 99.99 percent of bacteria, viruses, and superbugs on airplanes. Zoom Video Communications said it will make its conferencing program available for free to K-12 schools in Japan, Italy, and the United States, Tech Crunch reported.
Governments and healthcare providers are also investing in new technology as they search for creative ways to fight the pandemic. A Swiss startup company called Calyps supplies French hospitals with artificial intelligence that analyzes weather forecasts, hospital data, public events, and seasonal flu patterns to predict patient flow up to seven days in advance, France 24 reported.
At Beijing’s Qinghe Railway Station, infrared systems powered by artificial intelligence can check 200 temperatures a minute while people wait for trains without disrupting the flow of traffic, according to MIT Technology Review. Other AI programs can read thousands of CT scans in 20 seconds with 96 percent accuracy, helping doctors diagnose the pneumonia that often accompanies COVID-19.
Drone technology can help deliver medical supplies. Japan’s Terra Drone transports medical samples and quarantine material between control centers and hospitals. Drones can also patrol public spaces and track quarantine violations.
Other tech companies offer solutions to make social distancing and widespread closures easier to navigate. Baidu in China offers an online doctor consultation service for people with limited access to medical resources or to those who want to see a doctor without risk of exposing themselves or others to illness. The service offers a network of more than 100,000 respiratory specialists and has already handled more than 15 million inquiries, MIT Technology Review reported.
Web giant Alibaba designed an app that Chinese authorities use to track people who visited infected areas or had contact with anyone who tested positive for the coronavirus. Based on that information, the application sends a QR code to the person’s phone. If the code is red or yellow, the person cannot access workplaces, residential buildings, or various transit stations. While some people like the idea—one person told France 24 it is “reassuring”—it does have downsides. One man received a red code that blocked him from work for two days even though he had not traveled to an infected area or come near anyone with COVID-19. In a country known for intrusive surveillance, many fear the increased invasion of privacy will desensitize people to a new level of control. “Over time we see more and more intrusive use of technology and less ability of people to push back,” Maya Wang, senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch, told The Guardian.