Disease, epidemics, pandemics, and natural disasters have been threatening to wipe us out for about as far back as we have recorded history. From the black death in medieval Europe to the Spanish Flu of 1918, to AIDS in the 1990s, and now COVID-19. They’ve come in regular intervals. Unlike the world of 1918, which had no idea what hit them when the Spanish flu began to spread, we live in a day and age where the human race is on the apex of technological discoveries and inventions. Today, thanks to the Internet, news, media, and social media, it’s pretty hard to be ignorant about what’s going on in the world. And all this technology doesn't just help keep us informed about COVID-19, it helps frontline workers do their jobs better and more safely.
All hands on deck
While there has been quite a lot of discussion about the origins of COVID-19, we do need to give “technology” credit where it’s due. It’s only after other countries understood firsthand how dangerous this disease actually is that they started looking for a way to get it under control. The answer is the use of all possible resources and technology to not only support frontline workers in their fight against the virus but to also keep track of human beings who are hosts.
Short of keeping track of and quarantining everyone who is infected, there really isn’t anything that can be done except wait for a vaccine, wear masks in public, and observe social distancing. The fact that everyone now has a phone and can be tracked and traced digitally has played a huge factor in countries using software to flatten the curve.
Artificial intelligence vs. COVID-19
Artificial intelligence, in particular, has taken center stage in the fight against COVID-19 and is being used in the fields of research and development for testing kits, vaccines, and drugs, management of resources, and analysis of data. Additionally, AI and machine learning are being used with regard to contact tracing and risk assessment. What we need to keep in mind is that this is a disease that we know very little about and AI has helped effectively expedite a number of processes that would normally take decades of research.
This is being done by taking large amounts of data that we already possess on other infectious diseases and similar viruses like SARS and feeding it to machines that can read, process, and analyze. One example is BenevolentAI, which repurposed its AI-powered knowledge graph by feeding it with data on COVID-19 instead of chronic disease that the organization was originally focused on. By doing this the organization is able to study at scale, the effect of different drugs on specific families of viruses like coronavirus.
Testing and diagnosis for COVID-19: Technology steps up
Testing is one of our only weapons against COVID-19 at the moment, and AI is playing a major role there as well. In countries like China, India, and Brazil, with hundreds of millions of people, it’s humanly impossible to test everyone without causing long queues and traffic jams. In response, Chinese Internet conglomerate Baidu has introduced an AI-powered system that’s being used at a railway station in Beijing. This system uses infrared to scan the body temperature of over 200 people per minute without disrupting foot traffic. Importantly, this contactless testing en masse protects frontline workers.
In yet another application of AI in the field of testing for COVID-19, an organization called DarwinAI has come up with a neural network that can detect the virus by scanning patient X-rays. This is pretty useful in situations where there aren’t enough testing kits or staff to carry out the tests. What’s great about this particular example is the neural network has been open-sourced and hence has a pretty large international community to help train it.
Communication, collaboration, and ingenuity
In addition to helping with research and testing, technology is also being put to work to support frontline workers in order to communicate and collect the right information. The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) in a bid to help health workers have their queries answered more efficiently, has collaborated with IBM to create a Watson assistant for this purpose. This virtual assistant not only increases productivity but also helps train staff on the correct procedures to be followed in different scenarios.
A solution doesn’t have to be pretty or specifically built for COVID-19 either, repurposing is the name of the game. With frontline workers running out of ventilators to treat COVID-19 patients, engineers from an Italian research institute designed a 3D printed valve that turns scuba diving masks into makeshift ventilators. Similarly, the government of Liberia has repurposed a communication platform built for the Ebola outbreak in 2014 to help send important messages to health workers.
Robots to the rescue
We’ve always known that prevention is better than cure and the best way to keep our frontline workers safe is, in fact, to keep them away from danger as much as possible. To this effect, a number of innovations in the fields of robotics, autonomous vehicles, and drones are being put to use in place of health workers. With regard to robots, in particular, Wuhan, the epicenter of the virus, already has a hospital called Wuchang Hospital that is staffed entirely by robots.
From spraying disinfectant to dispensing masks and sanitizers, to even preparing and serving meals to the sick, robots are helping take a lot of the pressure off frontline staff who can then focus on the critical. Cloud Minds, a Chinese manufacturer of cloud-based robots, has deployed over a hundred robots across the country including one called Little Peanut that served as a flight attendant on a flight carrying passengers in quarantine.
The forgotten frontline
When we talk about frontline health workers, we often forget the police forces that are equally at risk while enforcing lockdowns and curfews and ensuring everyone is following the rules like wearing masks and observing social distancing. Drones are great for tracking human beings and are being used in a number of countries like Israel, India, Kuwait, UAE, Italy, France, China, and Spain to aid the police in these efforts. In India, a number of Drone startups have come forward and offered their services to local police.
Even truck drivers are on the front line and without them to deliver essentials a number of frontline workers are facing shortages of life-saving PPE. Zipline, which is the organization responsible for those remote deliveries in Africa we mentioned earlier, just got its first U.S. partnership to deliver supplies from a medical warehouse to frontline teams in Charlotte, N.C. The flight will take just eight minutes and will be carried out by a fixed-wing unmanned aircraft carrying a four-pound load and a 100-mile range.
Giant steps for mankind
In terms of mobile technology and COVID-19, almost every country is looking into how they can use it to control, track, and trace people in order to flatten the curve. India’s Arogya Setu or Singapore’s TraceTogether are just two examples. While mobile software is definitely playing a big role in helping control the pandemic, it’s the cutting-edge innovation in robotics and unmanned vehicles that are really impressive and breathtaking. If you think about the perfect solution to a contagion that spreads by touch, robots, and drones may be just what we need right now.
Featured image: Shutterstock