Thursday | 23 April | 2020
Solidarity Research Institute
The world we knew a few months ago has been turned upside down. Covid-19 came and literally overthrew the way used to live. Experts agree that this overthrow will not be temporary, but that the new behaviour we have learned will be the new norm and that technological innovation goes hand in hand with this new normal.
According to Pieter Geldenhuys, a futurist, many of the technology used now was already available before Covid-19, but the masses did not make use of it because they managed in a more traditional way. However, amidst Covid-19 the picture looks different. Geldenhuys believes the reason is that people’s behavioural patterns had to change greatly – people’s behaviour change when three things take place: if there is a scarcity of some kind, if there is an urgency and if there is a terror to their perspective. The new coronavirus is responsible for all three.
This article will briefly discuss technological innovation that was either inspired or rediscovered as a result of Covid-19.
Overall, this new (or relatively new) technology can be divided into five categories: early warning and surveillance; testing and healthcare; contact tracing; quarantine and social control as well as research for the development of an antidote or vaccine.
Early warning and testing
Although not much is known about the Covid-19 virus, it is known that the virus is spreading at an incredible rate. Communities can be infected within days and carry it over to other communities just as quick. To prevent the spread of this virus and other pandemics to get completely out of control, technology was developed to issue an early warning to potentially affected communities:
- Blue Dot is a Canadian health monitoring platform, that makes use of artificial intelligence algorithms to process the content of news articles, botanical and zoological reports, and official proclamations to give clients an early warning to avoid danger zones such as Wuhan. Global data from airlines that help determine whereto next and when infected individuals will travel is also used to make predictions. This data correctly predicted that Covid-19 will spread from Wuhan to Bangkok, Seoul, Taipei and Tokyo. According to Blue Dot’s founder and CEO, one cannot always rely on government to reveal information on time, and this company can pick up on news events about possible outbreaks of an endemic of some nature or detect whether something unusual is going on.
- Covid-19SG provides technology that allows residents of Singapore to have continuous access to data of every infection in the country. This data includes the street where the person lives and work, the hospital they are admitted to as well as the average recovery time and the connection between infections. Despite concerns about the potential privacy infringement, the government of Singapore has taken the approach that transparency about infections is the best way to help people make decisions and mange anxiety about what is taking place.
- Draganfly Inc. announced on 26 March 2020 that this company has been selected to be the exclusive global systems integrator for the Vital Intelligence Project. A combination of drones, cameras and data services for monitoring healthcare will be used to monitor public health during Covid-19 and other pandemics. It will detect contagious conditions in crowds, at workplaces, at airlines and in potential risk groups such as the elderly in care facilities. It will also work in conference centres, border crossings or critical infrastructure facilities.
- Biovital provides technology to remotely monitor patients who are in quarantine or under medical care in Hong Kong at a distance for suspected or confirmed Covid-19 cases. Not only does this help prevent the spread of the virus within the community, it also keeps healthcare workers safe (in a hospital in China around 29% of the people infected with Covid-19 were healthcare workers).
Testing and healthcare
There are many examples where artificial intelligence and other technology are being used globally in the health sector to reduce human contact and ensure protection of healthcare workers. Here are a few:
- On 12 March 2020, it was reported that six types of robots assist staff in a hospital in Wuhan with basic tasks, such as the delivery of food and medicine as well as the cleaning of certain hospital wards.
- Scientists at the Tsinghua University in Beijing have developed a robotic arm that can be controlled by doctors in a separate room. This arm can take saliva samples, perform sonars, and listen to patients’ organs – all without physical contact between doctor and patient.
- TempTraq is a portable temperature monitoring system that allows clinicians to remotely monitor fever with little or no contact with the patient. It also allows for outpatient temperature monitoring, as patients can be sent home to recover. In addition, it reduces the possible risks associated with shared oral thermometers and can monitor fever for up to 72 hours. Healthcare workers in Thailand use similar technology.
- The Mayo Clinic in the USA uses autonomous shuttle buses to transport Covid-19 tests to a laboratory for analysis, all without a person at the wheel.
- Formlab is an existing 3D printer that mobilises its user community to deploy nearly 1 000 printers to manufacture swabs and personal protective equipment (PPE) fast and on a large scale. With a singly print, 300 test swabs can be manufactured at a time. This enables Formlabs to manufacture between 75 000 and 150 000 swabs per day.
The use of technology to detect people’s movements and to identify and isolate someone who has come into contact with a Covid-19 infected person is critical. Traditional contact tracing alone is no longer sustainable at a time when infection rates continue to rise.
South Korea has used surveillance technology and the monitoring of bank cards and cell phone usage with a fair amount of success to determine whether people should be tested for Covid-19. Similar technologies have already been used in Pakistan and China.
New research conducted by Oxford University, proposes a model for developing a mobile application that can perform contact tracing as soon as a person tested positive for the virus. This model suggests that the application saves a temporary record of events where people were close to each other. The application should notify people who had close contact with the infected person immediately and then suggest self-isolation and testing.
Quarantine and social control
Physical distance has been proven many times to be effective in the fight against Covid-19. People are encouraged not to come together in groups and, whenever possible, to stay home in isolation. Amidst all this, operations should continue as normal as possible. A variety of existing and new technologies have been customised for the Covid-19 situation to either bring people together virtually or isolate them while some operations can continue.
Software such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams serve as substitutes for physical meetings in a work environment and are currently widely used. Other technologies available are Cognizant Softvision’s virtual capsule. Users are literally placed in a “capsule” where everything they need to successfully complete a particular piece of work is at their disposal. Avatour is also a technology that creates a virtual reality. Users can visit a real remote location in real time, providing a new and effective replacement for business travel. Avatour’s host application works with the smartphone or tablet you already have. Just add a low-cost 360 camera such as the Ricoh Theta V or Insta 360 One X, and you are ready to offer live, exciting telepresence to outside visitors.
Previous technology did not make provision for drones flying indoors without crashing into something. New artificial intelligence is nowadays used to disinfect UV-C lights instead of GPS and sensor technology. UV-C lights are currently used in the healthcare sector for disinfection, but Digital Aerolus seeks to make this technology more mobile so that it is more easily accessible to ordinary people and organisations.
Furthermore, the Chinese government has made logistics robots available to deliver food and medicine to people’s homes during China’s quarantine period. Although the virus can still be transmitted if humans touch the surfaces of the robot without washing hands, it has greatly slowed the rate of infection.
Education and educational material
Several existing educational platforms are in the spotlight since the lockdown:
- Wolkskool offers free high-quality video lessons, and assessments and supporting teaching material in subjects such as mathematics, science and Afrikaans – everything in Afrikaans.
- Vodacom has a data free e-School platform for grades R to 12.
- Vodacom also has a data free platform, Mindset, that offers a range of inspiring videos to support learners in a wide range of subjects.
- The Khan Academy, an international e-learn platform, made a free online resource available to children between the ages of 2 and 18.
- On Unesco’s website there is a list of e-learn platforms that are available globally.
- Sisanda Techs is an application that offers children who do not have access to science laboratories the opportunity to learn via a virtual platform.
Furthermore, Telkom made websites for universities, technical and vocational colleges available free of charge, so that no data is needed to use these websites. A list of higher education institutions where data is not needed to visit the websites can be found here: https://www.telkom.co.za/about_us/mediacentre/currentreleases/article1749.shtml
Many existing e-reading platforms have made their products free and accessible to any internet user for a while:
- Audible indicated that they will make audiobooks available to children while schools are closed. The books are available in seven languages (English, Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, Italian and Mandarin) and can be streamed for free.
- Kindle’s test version can be used for free to download books. You do not need a Kindle device; you can just download the Kindle application to any smart device.
- African Storybook is an online platform where storybooks for children are easily accessible, and the best news is, there are books available in all of South Africa’s 11 official languages.
- Global Digital Library offers free educational reading books per level of education in South Africa’s official languages.
Entertainment and recreation
The entertainment and leisure world were completely recreated within a matter of weeks. Strict lockdown measures caused these operations to come to a dramatic halt and these industries had to find creative ways to continue doing business.
Many artists announced that they will host home concerts via Zoom and other platforms, and other online shows, and many tourist attractions broadcast virtual or live tours.
Other initiatives include Google Arts & Culture a digital platform with collection pieces of 12 000 museums that can be studied and Europeana contains a database of attractions from 3 000 museums and libraries.
Research for the development of an antidote or vaccine
Scientists around the world are working on developing an antidote or vaccine, but now everyone’s help seems to be welcome. The University of Washington has called on scientists and people across the world to play a game where a protein is built that prevents the virus from infiltrating human cells. This game is available on Foldit’s website and there are already 57 000 registered people participating.
CORD-19 was created following a request from the White House’s Science and Technology Policy Office. It uses artificial intelligence tools to organise more than 24 000 articles about what causes the Covid-19 illness and the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. According to a project manager of CORD-19, information overload is the core problem. “There are dozens of institutions that published research on the coronavirus. Collecting all the information in a common format that is comprehensive, is a major challenge for researchers, and it is an excellent application of our AI capabilities.”
People still crave human interaction
Despite the use of technology, some research indicated that the use of it has a negative impact on the mental and physical wellbeing of people. Disasters can create immense tension for victims. This research indicates that a sudden confrontation with a robot without human support can cause a victim to experience increased stress and anxiousness.
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* All information was correct at the time of publication.