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Fighting the pandemic: The advancing role of technology

COVID-19 will be a significant catalyst for digital transformation, particularly when it comes to alternatives to personal contact and touch interfaces.
Read time 5min 30sec

COVID-19, like the Black Deaths in Europe during the medieval ages and the Spanish Flu of 1918, has once again revealed the fragility of the human race. The only difference is that today, thanks to modern technology, we are better equipped to deal with the pandemic.

There are clear signs COVID-19 will be seen as one of the more significant catalysts for digital transformation, particularly when it comes to the implementation of alternatives to personal contact and touch interfaces within the context of “the new normal”.

Just as video-conferencing was quickly adopted by employers who asked employees to work from home during the height of the pandemic, so technology is ready to help employees remain safe as they return to what could be hazardous workplace environments. (The same could be said for schools, universities, shopping malls, hospitals and any place where groups of people gather.)

Fortunately, over the last few months, businesses and employees have begun familiarising themselves and even coming to appreciate technology advances and the role they will play in everyone’s lives.

While telecommuting may be a more permanent arrangement for some employees, and the importance of high-speed Internet connectivity, high-performance laptops and numerous cloud-based platforms for collaboration and e-commerce will endure, there is an urgent need to redefine the nature and norms of the new workplace.

For those employed in offices, factories, workshops and warehouses, the spotlight will be firmly fixed (at least for the immediate future) on health and safety, Self-discipline will have to go hand in hand with digital sanitary policy enforcement and innovations such as wearable proximity sensors and “smart” security badges. Other novel workplace options may include wrist-mounted disinfectant sprays and hygiene-friendly, hands-free door openers.

The COVID-19 battlefield will be characterised by a raft of new high-tech corporate resources related to IOT, AI and cloud.

Significantly, the COVID-19 battlefield will be characterised by a raft of new high-tech corporate resources related to the Internet of things (IOT), artificial intelligence (AI) and the cloud, all of which will be aimed at moderating the effects of the virus, profiling people at risk and upholding the demands of social distancing.

These requirements have advanced the deployment of, for example, fixed infrared (IR) thermographic cameras which allow non-contact screening of people for elevated temperature, the most frequent symptom of COVID-19 infections.

These cameras, able to process and validate a temperature reading in under a second – and thus quickly process large groups of people in the shortest time – can also be teamed with conventional cameras and appropriate software to ascertain whether a mask is in use and raise alarms via Internet-linked management systems and strategically-sited computer screens when anomalies are detected.

Today’s IR cameras are able to measure temperatures at the corner of the eyes, where the lacrimal channels (tear ducts) are located. Without epidermal coverage, tear ducts are far more accurate points than the forehead or wrist which are so easily affected by ambient temperature fluctuations.

Needless to say, these solutions are also far more reliable, fast and functional than the hand-held thermometer, hand-written logbook and assigned assistant common in shops, malls and offices today.

Looking ahead, IOT technologies in conjunction with AI solutions can be expected to help organisations not only identify staff and visitors who may be infected, but also assist in the tracing of those with whom they have been in contact.

The instant traceability provided by connected proximity detection sensors worn by staff members and possibly attached to visitors or contract workers ensures a potential contamination cluster can be immediately back-traced from the infected employee.

Singapore has plans to equip each of its 5.7 million residents with such a device in what is said to be one of the world’s most comprehensive contact-tracing efforts.

Examples of developments in this field come in the form of wristbands that buzz whenever the wearer is about to touch his or her face, and a new wearable fitness and activity tracker which uses AI to detect COVID-19 symptoms up to three days before they manifest. It has been developed by scientists at the West Virginia University Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute.

Progress in COVID-19-linked technologies is increasingly seen in smart buildings which deploy IOT sensors to gather real-time data relating to air quality, asset management, energy use and – importantly – people density and desk occupancy to help organisations meet social distancing rules.

An important spin-off of smart sensor technology is its path to improved automation and control, both of which assist organisations to optimise their environments and improve energy conservation.

Against this backdrop, businesses looking to move towards more touch-free controls in response to health and safety concerns can expect a range of applications for voice technologies.

Voice assistants such as Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa and Apple’s Siri have registered strong growth in recent years, and the virus pandemic could accelerate developments in this area.

One of the more controversial aspects of the fight against COVID-19 has come with the linking of CCTV and other camera systems with AI, facial recognition and geolocation technologies.

Progress in this arena has been highlighted by the claim of two Chinese companies to have developed a system that accurately recognises people even if they are masked.

While facial recognition is regarded by those with ethical concerns as having the potential to be invasive, infringe individuals’ rights to privacy and limit the protection of personal data, there are positive aspects to the technology.

For instance, it is being linked to the concept of digital health certificates, sometime referred to as “immunity passports”, which may well be key to the easing of global lockdown restrictions and the resumption of international air travel.

As contact tracing becomes increasingly necessary, perhaps blockchain − the record-keeping technology behind the Bitcoin network – could have a role to play in maintaining personal privacy.

Companies may be able to collaborate through blockchain platforms to devise ways to identify COVID-19-positive people and build tracing apps with greater anonymity and confidential data security.

Paul Stuttard

Director, Duxbury Networking.

Paul Stuttard is a director of specialist distributor Duxbury Networking. Currently Cape-based, he has been with the company for 29 years and has extensive experience in the IT industry, particularly within the value-added distribution arena. His focus is on the formulation of future-oriented network optimisation strategies and business development objectives in collaboration with resellers and end-users in Southern Africa.

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