China, coronavirus, Coronavirus outbreak, technology, artificial intelligence, drones,
Shenzhen-based Pudu Technology, which manufactures robots for catering industry, has installed its machines in several hospitals around the country to help medical staff. Photo: Twitter

China makes a tech-tonic shift in war against coronavirus

Over the years, China has set up one of the most expansive and sophisticated surveillance systems in the world. The expansive data collection has, however, raised concerns over privacy issues.

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Technology is a double-edged sword; it can cut both ways. On one hand, the disruptive power of emerging technologies can be used for the larger public good while on the other they can be reduced to a tool to undermine individual privacy and freedom and to influence the outcomes through fake narratives.

Trading one’s privacy for a safer country has been a contentious debate. The use of new hi-tech surveillance methods by China to monitor citizens in a massive effort to fight coronavirus has rekindled this debate. However, a thin line divides persuasion and coercion.

One man’s collectivism may appear as an affront to individualism for another.

However, for all the criticism of being a surveillance State, China has effectively used the power of new technologies — ranging from facial recognition, thermal tracking and social media monitoring to drones, artificial intelligence, and robotics — to monitor and check the spread of the deadly virus.

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If China can prove its monitoring methods are a force for good in battling a public health crisis like the coronavirus, then it could set the world on course for more widespread adoption of surveillance technologies.

The range of technological tools that have come to the aid of Chinese authorities in their battle against the new respiratory pathogen is simply breath-taking. Futuristic technologies, powered by artificial intelligence, are helping to identify coronavirus symptoms, find new treatments, and track the spread of the disease.

The cameras are used to spot people with low-grade fevers while the railway systems can provide a list of people sitting close to a patient on a train.

Tech-tonic shift

China has pulled out all its state-of-the-art technological stops in its ongoing fight against the contagion that has infected over 80,000 people.

Flying drones monitor people and tell them to put on a mask or go indoors. They are also being deployed for transporting medical samples and conducting thermal imaging.

A new facial-recognition software measures people’s temperatures and identifies them based on body and facial data even when they are wearing masks.

The authorities check the phone data to see if people have come within the close range of a coronavirus patient.

Police are given helmets that are fitted with thermal cameras and facial recognition system so that they can identify people with fever.

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All mobile users have been asked to download software which estimates their health, gives them a colour-coded risk of contagion and shares the data with the law enforcement authorities.

Thermal scanners have been installed at railway stations in major Chinese cities to identify those who have fever.

As people are wary of direct contact with strangers, a food delivery firm has modified its app so that riders and customers don’t have to meet face-to-face. The app allows users to add a note to the delivery executive to drop off the food on their doorstep or at a location of choice.

The package also comes with a receipt that mentions not only the price but also the body temperature of the cook and the rider.

As a country with the world’s largest internet penetration, China is utilising this socio-tech ecosystem for the benefit of the people manifold.

Major players pitch in

The country’s tech giants have responded to the outbreak by deploying autonomous vehicles to bring supplies to medical workers, fitting drones with thermal cameras to improve detection of the virus and lending their computing power to help develop a vaccine.

Ecommerce major Alibaba has been offering AI computing capabilities to scientific research institutions such as the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) and the Global Health Drug Discovery Institute (GHDDI) for free.

Tech giant, Baidu, has offered its Linear Fold algorithm to coronavirus researchers for free along with its advanced AI computing capacity. Baidu Map, a popular navigation App, updates real-time road closure information and population density at public places to guide the public in avoiding crowded places.

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Another IT major Tencent is offering real-time fact-checking services to curb the spread of rumours and to track potential patients and advise the public

Schools across the country are opting for online classes and most companies are encouraging employees to work from home. Alibaba has developed a home office system through its mobile office tool DingTalk, which they have offered free to 10 million enterprises while their rivals, Tencent provided free service for real-time audio and video communication to allow 300 people to attend an online conference at a go.

Alibaba’s founder Jack Ma has announced that his charity, the Jack Ma Foundation, will donate $2.15 million for development of a vaccine.

Disinfecting Robots

Several companies have developed automated technologies for contactless delivery, spraying disinfectants and performing basic diagnostic functions, in order to minimise the risk of cross-infection.

Shenzhen-based Pudu Technology, which manufactures robots for catering industry, has installed its machines in several hospitals around the country to help medical staff.

Apart from robots and drones, China has mobilised its sophisticated surveillance system to keep a tab on infected individuals and enforce quarantines. Facial recognition cameras are being extensively used to scan crowds for fever and identify individuals not wearing masks.

SenseTime, a leading AI firm, has announced that its contactless temperature detection software has been deployed at underground stations, schools and community centres in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. The company said it has developed tools that can recognise faces, even if they are wearing masks.

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The officials in Chengdu city in Sichuan province have been provided with smart helmets that can measure the temperature of anyone within a five-meter radius, sounding an alarm if they are found to have a fever.

A mobile app called “Alipay Health Code” assigns individuals the colour green, yellow or red, depending on whether they should be allowed into public spaces or quarantined at home.

It uses big data to identify potential virus carriers and it already been adopted in more than 200 Chinese cities. Tencent, which runs the popular messaging app WeChat, has launched a similar QR-code-based tracking feature.

The “close contact detector” app notifies the user if they have been in close contact with a virus carrier.

Privacy concerns

Under Made in China 2025 initiative, the country plans to shift the economy from manufacturing to high-tech sectors.

While the strategy has paid off with technology coming to the rescue of authorities in tackling public health crisis, Beijing has long been criticised for its invasive use of technology and massive harvesting of public data.

The critics say it could use the health crisis as a justification to expand its already vast surveillance system. Over the years, China has set up one of the most expansive and sophisticated surveillance systems in the world. The expansive data collection has, however, raised concerns over privacy issues.

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