The coronavirus has been dominating the news for the past several weeks. Many agencies and communities around the world are trying to decide how to combat the new pathogen. While we still have little information on the new disease (for example, how it spreads and how deadly it really is), various attempts at creating novel approaches to fighting the spread of it have been developed. China, the epicenter of the coronavirus, is in the process of deploying these technologies. Some are fairly interesting. Others are a bit more invasive … as one Facebook commentator quipped, “This just shows you how little imagination Orwell had.” Let’s look at a few of these new technologies.
First, is a disinfection robot. Many modern hospitals have robots that will shine intense UV light to disinfect rooms. China is using these as well. However, how do you disinfect the streets of a major city? There have been several designs proposed and a few prototypes in operation, but they all have the same basic idea: Spray disinfectant everywhere. These robots vary in size depending on the model but are all about the size of a shopping cart. Tubes stick out that spray the disinfectant. One looks like a mini tank. It has two treads and a giant “cannon” on the front. These robots are designed to wander down sidewalks and spray everything they can find.
The next technology starts to fall down the Orwellian path of creepy big brother government. Several companies are deploying contactless temperature detection systems in many public areas. While this isn’t that uncommon for many border crossings around the world, what is different is what else these systems can do. Many are starting to use facial recognition software that detects whether the individual is wearing a face mask. In one case, this technology was put on a robot. The robot would wander around taking people’s temperature from a distance. If it detected a high fever or that someone was not wearing their mask, it would sound an alarm.
As if having a robot publicly yell at you for not being healthy wasn’t enough, China has released a new app to better control its population. Officially called “Alipay Health Code,” is a mobile app developed by Ant Financial (bank and sister firm to Alibaba). The publicly stated point of this app is to decide whether you pose a contagion risk and it tells you if you should be quarantined or allowed in public areas. It works through Ant Financial’s mobile wallet application, Alipay. The New York Times did a deep dive into the mobile application and what it found was, to say the least, a bit concerning. First of all, there is no clear or detailed information about how the application really determines your risk level. It does mention you can get flagged if you had contact with an infected person, visited a virus hot spot, or you reported symptoms. If you are flagged for quarantine, the application does not say why. Second, the Times found a program within the application that accesses personal data. This program is called “reportInfoAndLocationToPolice.” It appears the application is tracking individuals’ movements over time and the Chinese government is using that data along with many other records (such as trains, buses, etc). Do these facts scare off the Chinese from using the app? No, because the government requires it to travel … even locally. Checkpoints have been set up all over many cities requiring users to show their status in the application from train stations to subways.
A new disease can be scary and precautions should be put in place to stop its spread. However, we should be very wary of taking cues from China on how to stop the spread of the disease in the United States. It is an interesting use of technology, but it is also scary in its own right how China has reacted.