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The Chinese Tech behind the War on Coronavirus

Drones, Smart Helmets, Disinfecting Robots and advanced facial recognition softwares are fighting back against the Coronavirus.

The novel-coronavirus (officially labelled by the WHO as COVID-19) outbreak is posing a devastating impact on peoples’ lives and China’s economy, but its technologies are helping the country inch back.

Beijing has long stressed technological advancement as a pillar of growth, both the central and provincial government has promised funding to support its “Made in China 2025″ strategy designed to accelerate developments in artificial intelligence, automation and other areas, such as, manufacturing to develop a tech sector which rivals the Silicon Valley.

Xi stressed that China needs to step up clinical research for vaccines and antiviral drugs, in addition to expand online shopping options for the millions of people who are staying indoors to prevent the disease’s spread.

In supplement to Xi’s statement, the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology called on the tech sector for help, suggesting that temperature screening machines, robots and other technologies that can help reduce human contact should be deployed.

Robots

Robotics isn’t a new concept, however, the coronavirus outbreak in China has prompted many leading Chinese technology firms to respond to the deadly virus. Robots aren’t susceptible to the virus, therefore are being deployed to complete many tasks, for instance, cleaning and sterilising and delivering food and medicine to reduce human-to-human contact.

Pudu Technology deployed its robots — normally used in the catering industry — to more than 40 hospitals around the country to help medical staff spraying disinfectants and performing basic diagnostic functions to minimise the risk of cross-infection.

Food delivering giant Meituan-Dianping introduced robots in some partner restaurants in Beijing that bring food from kitchen to delivery works, and then to customers waiting for orders. Again to minimise human-to-human interaction.

Meanwhile, e-commerce giant JD.com (JD) enlisted self-driving robots to bring products to medical workers in the epicenter of the outbreak — Wuhan City.

Detection robot — it can simultaneously detect over 30 people whether they are wearing a mask or not

Drones

Unmanned aerial vehicles or simply drones have also been put into extensive use, being one the of fastest and safest ways to transport medical supplies via remote delivery.

Terra Drone is using its unmanned aerial vehicles to transport medical samples and quarantine material with minimal risk between Xinchang County’s Disease Control Centre and the People’s Hospital.

Drones also are used to patrol public spaces, track non-compliance to quarantine mandates, and for thermal imaging.

Whilst in Shenzhen, MicroMultiCopter is deploying drones to transport medical samples and conduct thermal imaging.

The technology allows authorities to scan through large crowds and spot if someone’s in need of medical attention, according to MicroMultiCopter, a drone startup based in Shenzhen that has dispatched about 100 of the devices across the country. They’ve also sent nearly 200 employees to command centres where they can monitor what the drones are seeing in real time.

“The company has been working overtime,” a spokesperson told CNN Business. “This is the best test of our drone system. It is also the best showcase to the world.”

Drones in action — to warn villagers to wear masks

Artificial Intelligence

Image Source

Infervision launched a coronavirus AI solution that helps front-line healthcare workers detect and monitor the disease efficiently. Imaging departments in healthcare facilities are being taxed with the increased workload created by the virus. This solution improves CT diagnosis speed.

Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba also built an AI-powered diagnosis system they claim is 96% accurate at diagnosing the virus in mere seconds, compared to manual diagnosis which can take more than a few hours to receive a relatively unreliable result often needing a second diagnosis. This was the case with Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil’s President), whom had to undergo two tests until a medical professional could confirm whether he had been tested positive for COVID-19.

Source: BBC News

In Sichuan, “Smart helmets” used by officials to identify people with fever using thermal visors. Similar to the fever detection robot, the helmet rapidly scales-up the policeman’s ability to check a peoples’ temperature in a crowd. He is presented with a live data-stream that shifts his effort from detection of the virus to dealing with the machine-presumed infected. Naturally to China’s surveillance state, its sophisticated surveillance system also used facial recognition technology and temperature-detection software from SenseTime to identify people who might have a fever and be statistically more likely to have the virus.

Beijing also introduced a monitoring system called “Health Code” that uses big data to identify and assesses the risk of each individual based on:

  • Their travel history
  • How much time they have spent in virus hotspots
  • and potential exposure to people carrying the virus

Citizens are assigned a colour-code (red, yellow, or green), which they can access via WeChat or Alipay to show whether they are safe to be around in public or should be self-isolating.

Mr. Zhong here has a green QR code, so is currently deemed at lower risk

Criticisms

According to Elliott Zaagman, who co-hosts the China Tech-Investor podcast, “the State media apparatus, takes every opportunity to send a message about China’s technological sophistication…(and) i suspect most of the stories about disinfecting robots, drones etc are just performative gimmicks, however, tech’s ‘less-sexy’ role in controlling this outbreak should not be dismissed”

The use of big, data, artificial intelligence has widened the country to criticisms about its vast surveillance state, which human rights groups have warned can be used to violate freedoms. Whilst these new surveillance technologies may be necessary during a health crisis questions are asked about protection of personal privacy.

Critics argue China could use the Coronavirus as a justification to expand its already vast surveillance system, which human rights bodies have described as dystopian often drawing parallels with Netflix’s “Black Mirror”.

Wonk Bridge will not be diving deep into this particular criticism here. But we will follow China’s use of social-monitoring technologies in the next few weeks and provide a follow-up article in due time. In the meantime, if this is a topic of interest, check out our article on China’s Social Credit Score apparatus.

In Brief

China has very openly marshalled technology in as many ways possible to combat the Coronavirus outbreak. With objective of minimising human interactions and delivering essential medical supplies in mind. Nonetheless, the measures China has adopted is subject to criticisms such as contravening privacy.

“Technology won’t be the “dominating factor” that stops the outbreak, but it will help people better face the epidemic”according to Danny Mu, a Beijing-based analyst of emerging technologies at Forrester.

Wonk Bridge Co-Founder Yuji Develle added an editorial comment, “Previously perceived as instruments of State control, wielded with the singular purpose of diluting popular or democratic opposition to the Communist Party, these technologies have proven of dual-use. They are now at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19 doing what they do best, keeping people apart and maintaining gamified social control. Such is the dilemma with new technology, how will we perceive these technologies in the future?”

This article was written on March 15th 2020 — where the number of new cases in China has decreased substantially, the number of new cases from China are now largely imported because China has successfully albeit a hard fought battle (not yet over) last 3 months to contain the spread of the coronavirus domestically.

As shops and business re-open and the economy kick back up again the head now turns to how the rest of the world will tackle this Global Pandemic. As WHO General Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has stated, Europe is now the new epicentre of Coronavirus.

Edward Zhang