If you are based in Singapore, you might have seen a dog-like robot patrolling some of the city-state’s parks earlier this year. Called Spot, the four-legged robot created by US-based Boston Dynamics is equipped with cameras and sensors to detect the concentration of group sizes gathering in parks while also reinforcing social-distancing rules, uttering important pre-recorded phrases such as “Let’s keep Singapore healthy” and “For your own safety, and for those around you, please stand at least one metre apart”.
Although it has been used for a number of applications over the last few years, its usefulness during the coronavirus lockdown has been of particular note. And soon after debuting as a patrol in Singapore, Boston Dynamics put Spot on sale to the general public for a cool $74,500. Indeed, Spot represents just one of the many crucial and fascinating ways in which tech solutions are being deployed to help in the fight against COVID-19.
As far as directly combating the pandemic, tech has played a vital role over the last few months. In the United States, for example, telehealth company Fruit Street Health launched CovidMD in late April, a risk-assessment, triage and telemedicine platform that people can use from the comfort of their own homes. By simply going to the website and filling out a free risk assessment of their history and current symptoms, they are given recommendations for the appropriate next steps to take, with the option to connect with a healthcare provider for a live-video telemedicine appointment, which costs $79.
“As soon as the Covid-19 crisis began, we saw a clear application of our technology to help create more access to quality care via telemedicine, reduce community exposure, and help healthcare providers stay safe while treating patients,” said Laurence Girard, founder and chief executive officer of Fruit Street Health. “With our live video telemedicine platform, we’re providing a comprehensive solution for patient screening, triage and advice to help lessen the burden on our healthcare system during this pandemic.”
And when it comes to solving problems on a global scale, the chances are that blockchain is not going to be too far away from the conversation. And yet again, the technology is being used extensively, particularly to validate the authenticity of data. Among the most serious ways in which the pandemic has impacted the world is through its damage to global supply chains. “COVID-19 has highlighted critical gaps and weaknesses in global supply chains,” acknowledged the World Economic Forum (WEF). “Blockchain technology may offer opportunities to increase trust and transparency—but it’s not a silver bullet. Rather, it is part of a broader digitization strategy that must be evaluated and deployed responsibly and holistically.”
One of the most lauded blockchain solutions has been developed by OriginTrail, a Slovenian company that has been “dedicated to making supply chains work together since 2011”. In July, the company announced that it was building “a decentralized Trusted COVID-19 Essential Supplies Repository (tCESR) for global information about essential supplies for COVID-19 emergencies”. This solution aims to provide a single truthful repository for the procurement of medical equipment to combat the proliferation of fraudulent products that don’t have the requisite certification. And according to a report published by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), countries across Europe “have been inundated with fake, substandard, and unverified personal protective equipment (PPE), endangering the lives of those who use it” since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. OriginTrail’s trusted repository, therefore, would provide “a single-source-of-truth” for governments, businesses and individuals, all of which would be able to access relevant information about specific equipment seamlessly.
For tracking the spread of the virus, meanwhile, few innovations are more ostensibly needed than PanaBIOS. Backed by the African Union and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), PanaBIOS is a pan-African bio-surveillance solution that not only tracks COVID-19 but also connects testing centres across the African continent. “We are excited to be working with African Union member states, the Africa CDC and our implementation partners by offering the PanaBIOS tool, a mobile-based, global health information platform powered by secure blockchain technology that captures a person’s COVID-19 testing data and results,” said Strive Masiyiwa, executive chairman of Econet and African Union special envoy for the continental fight against COVID-19. The mobile and web-based app uses algorithms to track and trace those who are facing potential health threats while also maintaining a record of test samples from their origins to in-country labs. It can log human traffic and density using event check-ins and proximity detection to identify those high-risk individuals who should be tested, while patients can receive their electronic records through a smartphone app or via a USSD (Unstructured Supplementary Service Data) phone code. Evaluation offices and command centres can also receive digital records to generate insights, analytics and progress reports, which help them to identify those individuals and hotspot regions that require special attention to contain COVID-19’s spread. “This data can be shared by individuals confidentially and at their discretion with relevant government, transport and business entities, in a manner that respects personal data privacy,” Masiyiwa confirmed.
Not all of the tech solutions being rolled out are free from controversy, however. Just as ethical implications and personal beliefs have figured heavily in the design considerations of many of the tech-based applications that were launched prior to the pandemic, so, too, have they featured in COVID-19-related tech. For instance, among the most contentious, divisive and polarising issues during the lockdown period, at least in some countries such as the United States, has been the issue of mask-wearing. And now, thanks to San Francisco-based software development company LeewayHertz, the debate could heat up further. The company’s Face Mask Detection System uses existing IP (internet protocol) cameras and CCTV (closed-circuit television) cameras to detect if a person is wearing a mask or not, with the company aiming to provide the service in hospitals, offices and quarantine facilities “to ensure people are taking required actions to prevent COVID-19 infection”. And already, its recognition software is being trialled across the US and Europe, with restaurants and hotels along with a US airport using it to ensure that staff and others are wearing masks as and when required.
“If we can compute the number [of people who are complying with the mask mandates], people can make policies and monitor whether or not they need to do another campaign to push mask usage,” Alan Descoins, the chief technology officer of Uruguay-based Tryolabs, recently told National Geographic magazine. Tryolabs has developed similar mask-recognition software. “Or if people start getting bored about COVID, and start not wearing masks, then there might need to be more publicity to make people aware.” But while such a solution might well prove highly useful in enforcing mask mandates and thus helping to lower the virus’s transmission rates, some have warned that the recognition software will end up capturing more data than necessary, with some facial skin tones possibly confusing the software’s algorithms. The software has also been met with some opposition due to its implications for widespread public surveillance.
It is worth remembering that while the immediate and ongoing impact of the pandemic is certainly a priority, solutions must also be cultivated to address the “new normal” of the post-COVID-19 era. This will typically involve using tech that helps to maintain and support the likely environment in which we will all have to live, including social distancing. Travel and tourism is just one industry that will be seriously impacted by this new environment. As such, concierge mobile apps are becoming increasingly popular, enabling hotels to interact with guests without having to be in close contact throughout the entirety of the guests’ stays. Known commonly as “touchless tech” or “zero touch communication”, such technology allows guests to have all of their queries addressed without having to leave their rooms or engage with hotel staff. Singapore’s Vouch, for instance, describes itself as “an all-in-one digital concierge for the full contactless hotel guest experience”, thus enabling guests to communicate with their hotels through its chat platform. This allows them to request items, laundry service or housekeeping services through the chat as well as browse and order directly from digital menu catalogues for room service and restaurant dine-in.