The world ushered in 2020 with anticipation and merriment, only to have moods quickly dampened when a novel coronavirus reared its ugly head. Before long, COVID-19 gripped countries globally. By the end of last year, the pandemic killed about 2 million people worldwide.
As countries struggle with the impact of the pandemic, emerging innovations and advanced technologies have come to the fore and paved the way to help us better cope during this time. While countries in Asia have been responding differently, what is worth noting is the widespread use of technologies such as IoT, artificial intelligence (AI), big data analysis, automation and 5G.
A key strategy in China’s COVID-19 effort is the use of AI and big data in various sectors. Most notably, the healthcare sector deployed AI in public screening, risk assessment, assistive diagnosis and even vaccine development. For instance, Nankai University and Inference Technology tapped into deep learning algorithm and medical knowledge databases to process a large volume of high-resolution CAT scans, referencing these scans with case data to reach a diagnosis within mere seconds.
Tech giants like Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent have also contributed to the country’s effort to contain the outbreak; Alibaba used an AI-powered diagnosis system operating on a gene-sequencing algorithm to make quicker and more accurate diagnoses.
Companies started to share their algorithms to raise efficiency in the country’s epidemic monitoring, testing and research effort. Baidu Research, for one, shared its algorithm with prevention centres, gene-testing institutions and R&D institutions to predict and examine the virus’ RNA secondary structure in just 27 seconds, instead of 55 seconds. Using model molecular structures obtained from AI, China could also carry out research into effective drugs to treat the virus.
Part of the strategy was also using human-computer interaction to reduce transmissions. A Chinese firm developed contactless voice-controlled elevators. Passengers scanned a QR code to open an app that uses IoT and voice interaction technology to operate the elevator.
To reduce person-to-person contact, and hence transmissions, autonomous vehicles delivered medical supplies to hospitals. In Beijing, Baidu’s autonomous micro-cars and autonomous driving cloud services could be accessed by companies that wanted to chip in to help the local community. In addition, Baidu used Baidu Maps to help in prediction and early warnings, analysing travel flow across high-risk areas. Using AI-powered mapping systems and big data, Baidu helped authorities track the movement of Wuhan’s population in the initial stages of the outbreak. AI-driven analytics provided real-time insight into the spread of the virus to help authorities better prepare and respond to the virus’ spread.
To assist frontline healthcare workers with menial and logistical duties, robots were deployed to disinfect hospitals and distribute medical supplies in isolation wards. In Hebei, China Unicom and a technology provider used epidemic robots to create a health hotline. Using big-data-based intelligent voice technology, these robots surveyed individuals about symptoms and travel history. Elsewhere in Wuhan, Huoshenshan Hospital deployed a cloud medical system to hold all hospital and laboratory data.
Blockchain technology was also critical in ensuring the openness and traceability of COVID-19 information. Lianfei Technology introduced a blockchain monitoring system to track COVID-19 situations in all provinces in real-time.
Likewise, businesses had to embrace innovation and data-driven insights to return to full functionality. Disruption to pillar companies was minimised using intelligent surveillance systems. For example, Jiangsu Sunshine Group, an industry leader in textiles, biotech, pharmaceuticals and medical devices maintained open using intelligent devices that carry out risk analysis of its employees before they returned to work. These devices sense and analyse vascular conditions and body temperature, coupled with insights from video surveillance and facial recognition technology to assess an employee’s health.
While most countries in the world are still grappling with the ills effects of the pandemic, advanced technologies combined with strict governmental interventions have helped China restore a large degree of normalcy.
South Korea ranks 8 among 54 countries for AI capabilities, according to a Global AI Index released by Tortoise Intelligence. One of the global forerunners in innovation, South Korea was quick to turn to technology as a means of response to COVID-19.
Following the outbreak, authorities used mobile phone locations, credit card usage and data-mining of CCTV footages to trace movements of infected individuals. This information is shared with the public via an app, using data visualisation of infected cases to reveal detailed maps of infected individuals’ precise movements. An Epidemiological Investigation Support System automated investigation processes, using R&D technology to collate and process a large volume of data to provide quick results within minutes.
Widespread testing was first administered using an AI-developed test kit, launched by a South Korean life sciences company in just under three weeks, compared to a few months using traditional methods. An AI-powered system improved diagnosis and provided patient classification. Infected cases were classified into mild, moderate, severe, or very severe, with each category of patients receiving different treatments and admitted to different facilities.
Also using AI, SK Telecom created a senior care system to monitor COVID-19 individuals in quarantine. This AI-powered system monitors seniors for words that suggest the need for medical attention. Another South Korean firm produced an AI-based handheld X-ray camera to scan the chest in just three seconds to provide a heatmap visualisation of abnormal lesions.
To prevent community spread caused by imported infections during the early stages of the outbreak, a mobile app for foreign visitors was used to allow individuals to conduct self-health checks and submit health conditions to the authorities. Through this app, telecommunications operators send texts and guidance on how they can report COVID-like symptoms. In the cities, drones were deployed to carry out disinfecting work and an AI-powered public chatbot was developed to inform the public of ways to respond to the outbreak.
Following the SARS epidemic in 2003, Taiwan has been prepared to face yet another healthcare episode. Given Taiwan’s proximity to China and the number of flights between the two countries, Taiwan was perceived to be high-risk. But as soon as the outbreak emerged, the authorities wasted no time in collating data from its immigration and customs database, as well as a real-time national health insurance database to create a big data platform for analysis. Using this platform, authorities identified infected cases based on travel history, clinical visits and symptoms to provide real-time alerts to the population.
Crisis-ready citizens also contributed to a bottom-up approach. Within the community, tech-savvy individuals worked on open data, distributed ledger technology and chatbots to provide real-time data on masks stock levels in pharmacies to prevent panic buying.
A customised app tracked mobile phone signals of quarantined individuals for possible violations. Enforcement officers would be alerted via an automated system when these individuals are found outside of their quarantined zones.
These measures helped the country rein in on infectious cases. For months last year, Taiwan was COVID-free. To date, Taiwan has only recorded over 800 COVID-19 cases.
In Japan, smart masks connected to smartphones have been developed to ensure users abide by social distancing rules. Integrated with microphones, these smart masks also help to amplify the voice of the user.
With proper sanitisation being crucial to curtailing the spread of COVID-19, Japanese firm Fujitsu introduced an AI monitor that recognises complex hand movements. Developers created 2,000 handwashing patterns using assorted wash basins and soaps to detect people who are not using soap or not washing their hands according to guidelines issued by the World Health Organisation (WHO). In addition, Fujitsu rolled out an elevator with enhanced hygiene functions. This elevator features a contactless panel that uses infrared sensor technology to detect a user’s desired floor when their hands hover over the panel. The elevators also provide a signal when it is crowded.
More recently, NEC launched a facial recognition system that identifies people even when they are wearing masks. This touchless verification system can be deployed at the security gates of buildings. It uses AI to ascertain if a person is wearing a mask, and uses exposed parts of the face to perform authentication. Using this system, employees entering office buildings do not need to tap their employee ID card.
One of the earliest interventions rolled out by the Singapore government is contact tracing carried out mostly through mobile apps. Singapore became the first country to debut a national app for contact tracing to respond decisively to the outbreak. Eventually, a TraceTogether token was launched.
TraceTogether uses Bluetooth technology to exchange signals with other tokens or smartphones running the app to detect close contact within two metres and for at least 30 minutes with infected individuals. The token encrypts data of nearby devices and stores the information for over three weeks. The token or app only registers locations of users, allowing the authorities to map out contact with infected individuals in the past 14 days.
To address a shortage of ventilators and healthcare staff, ABM developed a tele-ventilator that allows healthcare staff to monitor and adjust ventilator settings remotely and safely through online portals. Compared to conventional means, this new technology is 25 times faster and creates 50 times less traffic to enable more responsive and secure patient care.
To cushion the impact of the pandemic on businesses, firms in Singapore are relying on IoT products and solutions to reap improved productivity, reduced operating costs and increased revenue streams. According to a study by Vodafone Business, 74% of Singapore firms that have adopted IoT decreased their operational costs by almost a third.
Augmented reality has been adopted by the Singapore Zoo and other tourist attractions, and furniture stores took their businesses online during a nation-wide lockdown, using AR to draw customers.
Moving forward, Singapore’s Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) has committed to injecting $30 million to accelerate the adoption and commercialization of 5G solutions to benefit individuals and transform businesses.
In India, an IoT-enabled mobile-based technology has been developed to provide real-time logistics management across vaccine cold chain monitoring to accurately check location, stock level and temperature of vaccines.
For businesses, COVID-19 exposed vulnerabilities of supply chains in the event of a pandemic. Businesses realised the importance of building resilient digital supply networks across locations and partners. According to Tata Communications, a major telecommunications company in India, increased demand for IoT solutions has expanded beyond manufacturing lines to the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) and pharmaceutical sectors.
The chemicals sector also began to favour IoT solutions. Indian specialty chemicals manufacturers who had to ramp up supply to cope with increased demands turned to IoT solution to connect with global supply chains. IoT could facilitate a real-time view of production, inventory and expected delivery times. Using algorithms, businesses could optimise machine settings and tweak production to better respond to supply-chain changes.
This year, tech innovations will continue to dominate many sectors in India. What had previously taken years to deploy will now experience a higher take-up among businesses to ensure continuity.
As COVID-19 continues to rage in India, zMed Healthcare Technologies recently announced a tie-up with the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) to provide digital automation and remote monitoring system for MCGM hospitals’ COVID ICU beds. Advanced technologies in healthcare will be utilised to deliver better clinical care to COVID patients, combining LAN, WIFI and IoT technologies to provide connectivity for medical devices with the server, database and web applications. This system features medical device data integration, clinical workflow automation, clinical decision support tools and Clinical and Radiology AI modules to provide comprehensive healthcare.
Globally, countries can no longer turn a blind eye to a digital-first approach to cope with the uncertainties ahead. On top of integrating big data analytics in public healthcare systems to provide enhanced medical attention, governments will rely on technology to roll-out and monitor vaccinations to the public when they become available. Across sectors, businesses will step up on digital transformation and lean towards AI-enable technology, industrial automation and smart logistics.
While COVID-19 has exposed shortfalls in many countries’ public health systems and supply chains, it has revealed the potential and power of advanced technologies to overcome the many challenges. It has also been a catalyst for innovation no least.
As countries develop new innovations, collaboration is key as expertise and resources are promptly shared with one another to effectively contain a virus that knows no geographical boundaries.