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How robots and AI can help fight coronavirus

By Pranjal Sharma
March 17, 2020 08:30 IST
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A densely populated India does not have the luxury of resources nor can it wait for western countries to develop a solution.

There is enough talent and enterprise among Indian tech companies to be able to support the fight against covid 19, says Pranjal Sharma.

IMAGE: Passers-by in Times Square interact with a Promobot robot that informs the public about the symptoms of coronavirus and how to prevent it from spreading, in this still frame obtained from video, in New York City, U.S. Photograph: Reuters TV/Reuters
 

In normal times, the words artificial intelligence (AI) and virus would be mentioned in reference to cyber security matters.

These are not normal times, it seems.

The coronavirus called covid has spread to a level where the World Health Organization says that this is "uncharted territory."

In these abnormal times, emerging technologies -- even if untested -- are being deployed to manage the situation.

Robots have been pressed into service for isolated patients while hopes are high that artificial intelligence can help find a counter to covid 19.

IMAGE: UVD Robots. With their ultraviolet light, the robots can disinfect and kill viruses and bacteria autonomously, effectively limiting the spread of coronavirus without exposing hospital staff to the risk of infection. Photograph: Kind courtesy uvd-robots.com

Denmark based UVD Robots is leading from the front with its disinfection robots.

"With ultraviolet light, the robots can disinfect and kill viruses and bacteria autonomously, effectively limiting the spread of coronaviruses without exposing hospital staff to the risk of infection," says the company.

"The invention increases the safety of both staff, patients and their relatives by reducing the risk of contact with bacteria, viruses and other harmful microorganisms.

"The concentrated UV-C light emitted by the robots as they drive has a germicidal effect that removes virtually all airborne viruses and bacteria on the surfaces of a room."

IMAGE: A robotic disinfectant sprayer for preventing the novel coronavirus climbs steps in Luoyang, Henan province, China. Photograph: China Daily/Reuters

More than 2,000 hospitals in China are already using these robots while many are being shipped to other hospitals in Europe, the US and Asia.

In China, a local company is believed to be using AI to diagnose potential patients of coronavirus.

With patients rising rapidly, human based diagnosis can't cope with numbers.

AI-based diagnosis could be the way ahead.

IMAGE: A screenshot of InferVision developed software being used by Zhongnan hospital in Wuhan. Photograph: Kind courtesy InferVision.com

Beijing based startup InferVision has developed the software being used by Zhongnan hospital in Wuhan.

Similarly, Alibaba's research institute Damo Academy claims to have created an AI-based system, which has 96 per cent accuracy in detecting coronavirus.

The algorithm was trained with 5,000 CT scans from confirmed corona cases to differentiate between covid 19 virus and ordinary pneumonia virus.

IMAGE: A robot designed to help medical workers treat coronavirus patients remotely is pictured during a demonstration for the media at the aerospace engineering school of Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. Photograph: Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

Another Chinese giant Baidu's AI developers' team has created a tool called LinearFold, which claims to slash Covid 19 detection time from 55 minutes to 27 seconds.

A US-based startup, Insilico, has used artificial intelligence and machine learning to identify molecules that could be used to counter covid 19.

Insilico claims that it took just four days to identify thousands of new molecules, which could be turned into medicines.

If this works, human trials could begin in weeks rather than the years it takes to identify new molecules.

IMAGE: A robot with a dispenser for hand sanitiser goes around a shopping complex as the country is hit by an outbreak of the novel coronavirus, in Shanghai, China. Photograph: Aly Song/Reuters

Companies that are involved in public health data surveillance are leading the way in predicting trends in the spread of virus.

Some of them like BlueDot and MetaBiota are using social media listening to capture citizen reports that signify relevant symptoms.

Many emerging tech companies will find opportunities to test their hypotheses in this time of a health crisis.

As long as companies are aligned towards public good, all experiments will hopefully yield productive results.

IMAGE: A robot designed to help medical workers treat coronavirus patients remotely is seen during a demonstration for the media at the aerospace engineering school of Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. Photograph: Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

Countries like India must also rope in smart startups in healthcare in the war against corona.

The ministry of health and state governments should bring in smart minds and deploy the best that tech has to offer.

Sometimes untested and unusual ideas can help when legacy systems are under stress.

IMAGE: Workers with protective face masks on ride smart self-balancing scooters as they control a robotic sprayer spraying disinfectant at a residential compound in Wuhan, the epicentre of the novel coronavirus outbreak, Hubei province, China. Photograph: China Daily/Reuters

AI and robotics for public health is a real need and has demonstrated great value.

A densely populated India does not have the luxury of resources nor can it wait for western countries to develop a solution.

There is enough talent and enterprise among Indian tech companies to be able to support the fight against covid 19.

It is time for healthcare organisations and public health policy makers to shed their bureaucratic reservations and create a new framework of tech-based collaboration.

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Pranjal Sharma in New Delhi
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