Ask TechDesign PM: Technologies v.s Coronavirus

Q: What technologies are being used for surveillance in the fight against the Coronavirus?

A: While surveillance always comes with questions on privacy, let’s put concerns aside for a moment and look at some of the technologies being employed. A variety of surveillance technologies have been employed by governments around the world to identify, monitor and quarantine suspected cases of COVID 19. Some governments have used wearable wristbands linked to a smartphone app that alerts authorities if a person leaves their quarantine location. Other governments have worked with telecommunication providers to access cell phone location data directly to track where they’ve been. In addition, some countries are considering building up a network of cameras equipped with facial recognition technology that will auto-detect anyone who breaks quarantine.

Facial recognition accuracy is reduced, however, when everybody is wearing a mask during a pandemic. To get around this, a new posture recognition technology can be applied. Gait and posture recognition is a new biometric authentication technology that has attracted attention in recent years. Everyone’s walking posture is different. Muscle strength, tendon and bone status, weight, and center of gravity all will affect our walking style which can be used to identify us as individuals. This technology uses deep learning to analyze our body characteristics and behavior, and it can detect individuals from long distances away, mask or no mask. While facial recognition can use 2D cameras for recognition, gait and posture recognition requires dynamic 3D scene analysis using Time-of-Flight cameras to be effective.


Q: How can smartphones be used in the fight against the coronavirus?

A: The tremendous growth of smartphones over the last decade means that practically everyone now has one, and this makes it a very handy tool in the battle against the coronavirus. Here are some of the technologies within smartphones being used:

GPS: Governments have been using quarantined individuals’ smartphone GPS to track their movements and determine if they are violating their quarantine. If an individual under quarantine goes outside of the “electric fence” area, the system will alarm the user and the government.

4G LTE: While GPS is only effective outdoors, 4G LTE works both indoors and outdoors. Governments can use this technology to track people’s locations and send messages to them. For example, if a person is found to be infected, the government will send a message to anyone who has been in close proximity to the infected person to inform them to go for viral testing.

Camera and NFC: These two technologies have been used to guide users to websites to fill out personal information for tracking. For example, visitors to stores are asked to scan a QR code and fill out their personal data and body temperature. The store can then provide this data to the government if someone is found to be infected for contact tracing. While a bit more manual, this method is both cost effective and does not bring privacy concerns as individuals are opting in to provide their data.

Bluetooth: Bluetooth technology has two important properties that can help with social distancing – RSSI measures signal strength which allows for it to calculate the distance to other Bluetooth devices, and MAC address helps to identify different devices. Put together, this allows for a powerful social distancing tracking function. For example, a smartphone APP can use Bluetooth to exchange short distance signals with others using the same APP. Then a historical tracking will be stored letting you know who you have been in contact with and at what distance. And if anyone becomes infected, the APP can notify anyone who has come within a certain distance of that individual.


Q: What sorts of technologies will become more prevalent in the post-Coronavirus world?

A: In the education sector, students are unable to attend school in person and have switched to online classes through tablets or computers at home. This has obviously led to the increased use of communication platforms such as Cisco webex, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts Meet, etc.

An unanticipated issue that has arisen is the difficulty of teachers to maintain the concentration level of their students through online learning. Parents also cannot always accompany children in their online classes, making it so that there is no supervision to ensure the child is awake and paying attention.

To combat this problem, some experts have suggested using “face detection” AI software to analyze the concentration level of students through examining their sitting position, whether their focus is on the screen, their facial expressions, etc. If the AI software detects the student is not concentrating, the system will send a warning signal to notify the teacher. While these functions may still need to be optimized, they have great potential to significantly improve the efficacy of at-home learning. This type of AI software is already being used in other applications, for example to detect when drivers get drowsy.


Q: What new technologies in the hospitality industry can help mitigate corona virus transmission?

A: One of the hardest hit sectors during the pandemic has been the hospitality industry. Now as COVID-19 slows down, many businesses are seeking to re-open. To ease consumers’ fears, here are some solutions the hospitality industry can implement:
1. Non-contact check-in system:
Hotels can now use a contactless kiosk to check-in guests and provide them with virtual room cards. With this easy check-in system, hospitality owners not only decrease COVID-19 transmission potential, but also save on labor costs. Moreover, owners may simply manage the property via app, to supervise the room status and instantly alert the cleaners when needed.
2. Robotic food delivery:
Combined with food delivery services, robots could deliver a variety of dishes to tenants without any human contact. The food would be delivered to your room by AGVs (Automatic Guided Vehicle). While AGV technology is not new, it is starting to find applications in many different industries outside of its traditional role in the factory.


Q: What sorts of technologies will become more prevalent in the post-Coronavirus world?

A: COVID-19 has drastically changed our daily life from how we work to how we interact with others. One largely affected group is the elderly who live by themselves, especially prevalent in developed countries. COVID-19 has put them in an even more vulnerable position as they may become more socially isolated, making it difficult to identify when care may be needed.

IoT technology such as energy disaggregation or NILM (Non-Intrusive Load Monitoring), can effectively address this situation without invading an individual’s privacy. It is an algorithmic solution that analyzes the total power consumption in a household and translates it into load consumption by individual home appliances in a convenient way – hence you no longer need to replace every single power socket at home with a smart plug. Normally, this approach is used to identify abnormal operation of an electrical appliance in order to save energy (detecting clear behavioral deviation in the energy consumption patterns between a normal and malfunctioning one). For elderly care, by identifying how the energy usage deviates from our typical behavior, NILM can detect when something might be wrong. For example, if you normally start preparing breakfast at 7 am in the morning, chances are you’d see an electricity peak hour at that time on a regular basis. If one day there happened to be an absence of energy usage during that time which continued for many hours, it would indicate something might be going wrong and would trigger a phone call or visit to check.

Through implementing NILM onto a smart meter, we can reduce direct social contact while still protecting the health condition of the elderly in our society.


Q: In what ways is COVID-19 accelerating technology trends?

A: COVID-19 is accelerating the trend towards AI and automation, often in unexpected applications, for example, in golf. Although played outdoors in large open spaces, it is still possible that contact with golf caddies can lead to virus transmission. Well, now there is a product that reduces this risk – a robotic golf caddy utilizing AGV (Automatic Guided Vehicle) technology. Simply put your golf clubs on the robotic golf caddy and it will follow behind you, effectively replacing human caddies. Typically, AGVs navigate via color tape, magnetic tape and bar code on the floor. This isn’t possible on a golf fairway though. Instead, the robotic golf caddy uses wireless technology to follow the direction of the signal carried by the golfer. Another method is to utilize cameras to follow the golfer at a fixed distance. The robotic golf caddies also utilize sensors to avoid collisions. While COVID-19 has significantly affected our lifestyles, technological innovations are making some of our normal activities a little bit safer.


Q: What sorts of technologies will become more prevalent in the post-Coronavirus world?

A: With all the social distancing regulations enacted worldwide, one of the most influenced sectors has been retail. Social distancing requires us to reduce human contact and in some ways, COVID-19 has just helped to speed up many of the technological trends that were already occurring in retail – here are a few:

1. Self-checkout kiosks reduce human interaction and were already becoming more and more common.
2. One step further than self-checkout kiosks is not needing to check-out at all in Amazon’s Go stores. Using cameras and sensors to track what customers have taken off the shelves, the stores use AI and mobile payment to allow customers to grab what they want and just walk out of the store.
3. Robots for 3D environments (dirty, dangerous, and dull). For example, with good computing and measuring, robots can do the cleaning work even more carefully and efficiently than humans while reducing human interaction.
4. Sometimes robots and machines can leave people with cold feelings, and customers will want someone to communicate with face to face! For these situations, using video with actual humans can increase service satisfaction while maintaining social distance. In addition, a single customer representative can service customers from multiple locations through video conferencing.
5. While already very prevalent, increased use of mobile payments could further help by reducing the exchange of bills and coins.

The more of these measures the retail industry can enact, the safer customers will feel returning to retail stores.

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