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Reducing the Spread of Illness Through AI, Big Data, and Robotics

March 23, 2020 by Luke James

Coronavirus (COVID-19) is now a global pandemic and has spread worldwide. As China responded to the virus, it leaned heavily on its technology sector, more specifically artificial intelligence (AI), data science, and robotics to fight it.

Tech leaders in China including Alibaba, Baidu, and Huawei lent its technology to fighting coronavirus and accelerated their respective healthcare initiatives. 

Now, tech companies worldwide are becoming more and more involved with academics, governments, clinicians, and front-line responders by using their innovations to manage and fight COVID-19 as it continues to spread at a rapid pace and devastate entire countries. 


A busy street in China.

Monitoring pedestrians through patrol robots is one of the methods China has employed to track the potentially sick by body temperature. 


Fighting COVID-19 With Technology

When SARS broke out in 2002, it took more than one year for the virus’ genome to be sequenced. With COVID-19, sequencing was achieved less than one month after the first case was identified. Similarly, researchers were able to develop and distribute the first diagnostic test for COVID-19 shortly after news first broke to the public. There can be no doubt that technology, especially emerging technologies such as AI, robotics, and data science, enabled this to happen in record time. Similarly, its wider role in fighting COVID-19 and future epi/pandemics cannot be understated.  

The massive growth of connectivity and the wealth of data that it offers now allows health officials to quickly track the spread of disease, providing vital point-in-time information that is critical to fighting an epidemic or, in this case, pandemic. Additionally, tech companies like Google, and Twitter, for example, can and are working together to identify and eliminate instances of coronavirus misinformation—instead, users are redirected to reliable sources. This helps to ensure that populations are correctly informed and take the right precautions and steps to mitigate the transfer of a virus or infectious disease.

It is not only connectivity and data that helps reduce spread but emerging technologies like AI and robotics, too. AI, for example, has proven effective in advancing public health. In Canada, a company named BlueDot used AI to scan 100,000 articles in 65 different languages for public health information. 

Using this approach, the company was able to alert its clients about COVID-19 ahead of public bodies such as the World Health Organization (WHO). Meanwhile, in China, 5G-enabled robots have been used by the police to both monitor the body temperatures of citizens out-and-about and identify people who are not wearing facemasks. In instances where somebody has a high temperature and/or is not wearing a facemask, an alert is sent so that immediate action can be taken—COVID-19 screening or the provision of a facemask.


Hospital emergency entrance.

The use of robotics is playing a huge role in hospitals meeting the needs of patients while reducing human-to-human contact. 


What Tech Companies Are Doing

The better that we can track an illness, the better we are equipped to fight it, and BlueDot is not the only company that has found a use for AI in this area. Infervision, for example, has launched a coronavirus AI solution that helps healthcare workers to efficiently detect and monitor the disease by improving CT diagnosis speed. Alibaba also built an AI-powered diagnosis system that they claim is 96% accurate and can diagnose COVID-19 in seconds. 


The Role of Robotics During a Pandemic

AI aside, robotics is playing a huge role. In fact, utilizing robotics is one of the quickest and safest ways to get medical supplies from A to B. In Xinchang County, Terra Drone is using its unmanned aerial vehicles to transport medical samples and quarantine material between the country’s disease control centre and the People’s Hospital. 

Robots are also suitable for deployment in hospitals to assist with or carry out tasks such as cleaning and sterilizing, delivering food and medicine, and generally reducing human-to-human contact wherever possible. Blue Ocean Robitics’ UVD robots, for example, use ultraviolet light to kill bacteria and viruses, and Pudu Technology’s robots have been deployed in more than 40 hospitals throughout China. 

We now know the coronavirus outbreak to be one of the biggest public health crises in generations and is an example of just one of many crises of varying severity that we will face in the coming decades. The advances that we have seen demonstrate that great feats can be reached when healthcare and tech innovations are brought together, and that the spread of illness can be substantially mitigated. 

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