Drones with thermal cameras and speakers, facial recognition, telepresence robots. Since the beginning of the epidemic, the country has relied heavily on a technological arsenal to stop the spread of the virus. The latest example is the close contact detector app that can inform users of potential contact with a person infected or suspected of being infected with the coronavirus.
More than 1,100 people have died from the coronavirus, according to the latest figures. Since the outbreak, the Chinese government has deployed extensive surveillance of the population to contain the contagion and limit public gatherings. Let’s take a tour of the different technologies that have been requisitioned.
01. The Drone Patrol
Soon after people were confined to the outbreak’s epicenter, the authorities have started deploying drones to provide medical follow-up for them. Equipped with thermal imaging cameras, those drones can monitor the temperature of people without direct human contact. The inhabitants who are called in are placed on their balconies so that their body heat can be measured by the drones’ thermosensors, as we can see on this video released on February 4, 2020 by the Chinese state news agency Xinhua.
In this other video published by China’s state-owned Global Times on January 31, 2020, the drone is giving out injunctions to people, telling them they “shouldn’t walk about without wearing a mask.” If people are taking insufficient precautions, the drone with its loudspeakers won’t hesitate to chastise them.
Drones that are usually used in agriculture could be requisitioned to spray disinfectants on contaminated areas (outdoor public places such as metros, buses). Chinese drone manufacturer XAG is already working on setting up operations involving a fleet of drones. According to the Daily Mail, “individual drones can disinfect an area of 16,000 square meters in a single morning.”
02. The AI Bots
Artificial intelligence is one of the most common and preferred tools China like to mobilize for controlling the flow of its people. A large number of sensors and body scanners have been installed in metros and bus stations in major cities. The South China Morning Post reported that Chinese technology leader, Baidu, has developed an innovative tool that is able to detect at-risk individuals. Its system is using AI to direct infrared sensors at the foreheads of moving passengers. Invisible to the naked eye, this beam can detect the body heat of users and report any anomaly to the authorities. If the temperature exceeds 37,3 °C, a second check, manual this time, is carried out by the authorities. According to Baidu, this system can check more than 200 people per minute. The aim of this technology is to identify suspicious behavior in order to prevent potentially infected individuals from moving and spreading the virus. It is currently installed at the Qinghe station in Beijing.
According to state-owned Xinmin Evening News, in Shanghai, an AI bot with voice recognition capabilities is also being used to screen people at high-risk. It calls them to ask questions and eventually recommend home quarantine.
“Based on your condition, you are advised to stay indoors for a 14-day quarantine observation… We will send your information to community health centers for follow-up, and please contact the residential committee for any help,” the AI bot told one recipient.
03. The Robots
As the deadly new coronavirus continues to spread, robots are being drafted in to help treat sufferers and minimize person-to-person contact. Vici is a robot designed by InTouch Health to bring telehealth to any location. Vici is usually used by doctors who are located away from their patients. But in the case of the contagious coronavirus, Vici has become an ideal and safe medical device to treat infected patients while protecting the health of the hospital’s employees.
For the same reason, hundreds of people quarantined in a hotel in Hangzhou, China, who are suspected to have the virus are being served food by a robot. It is also being reported that disinfection robots, using autonomous navigation technology, are being employed to sanitize surfaces and air space in six hospitals in Wuhan, the Chinese city at the epicenter of the outbreak.
04. The Close Contact Detector App
The Chinese government has just launched an application to track people infected with coronavirus, reported Xinhua on February 10, 2020. The close contact detector app is expected to inform its user of potential contact with a person infected with the coronavirus or suspected to be.
The application was developed by China Electronics Technology Group Corporation and is using private data collected by different Chinese authorities. To apply, users must scan a QR code on mobile applications. After registering with a phone number, they must enter their name and national identification number to find out if they have potentially been in “close contact” with an infected person. If this is the case, the user is asked not to leave their home and to notify the local health authorities.
Journalists of the BBC have interviewed Hong Kong technology lawyer Carolyn Bigg. According to her:
“In China, and across Asia, data is not seen as something to be locked down, it’s something that can be used. Provided it’s done in a transparent way, with consent where needed. From a Chinese perspective, this is a really useful service for people… It’s a really powerful tool that really shows the power of data being used for good.”
People have started getting back to work since the beginning of this week. In Hubei province, millions of people still remain in quarantine.