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A medical worker checks the drip of a patient in the ICU (intensive care unit) of Zhongnan Hospital in Wuhan, central China's Hubei Province, Jan. 24, 2020. Photo: Xinhua

Artificial intelligence applications surge as China battles to contain coronavirus epidemic

  • Autonomous robots have also replaced human cleaners at segregated wards to reduce infection rates
  • The voice robot, which collects and checks information such as personal identity, health condition and whereabouts

The coronavirus outbreak has seen a surge in the use of artificial intelligence-backed technology to help contain the spread, including robotic cleaners spraying disinfectant at segregated wards to AI voice assistants calling people to give advice on home-quarantine.

The increasing use of technology comes as the rapidly spreading respiratory illness has resulted in more than 425 deaths, overtaking the number of deaths caused by the Sars epidemic in 2003, according to Chinese health authorities.

Communities in Shanghai have turned to AI for more efficient early screening, with those deemed at high risk receiving calls from a voice recognition bot that asks questions and recommends home quarantine in some cases, according to state-owned Xinmin Evening News.

“Based on your condition, you are advised to stay indoors for a 14-day quarantine observation … We will send your information to community health centres for follow-up and please contact residential committee for any help,” the AI bot told one recipient.

The voice robot, which collects and checks information such as personal identity, health condition and whereabouts through multiple questions, can make about 200 calls within five minutes, compared to the two to three hours it would take to do it manually.

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The AI bot can quickly categorise information and produce daily reports, thus speeding up the monitoring process for the spread of the virus, according to the local news report.

Autonomous robots have also replaced human cleaners at segregated wards to reduce infection rates. According to Chinese media reports, the cleaning robot developed by Shanghai Lingzhi Technology can work nonstop for over three hours, spraying disinfectant on self-navigated routes in hospitals.

In more remote parts of the country, local authorities are using drones equipped with loudspeakers to monitor citizens seen in open areas without face masks. The caption on a video posted on Twitter by state-owned media Global Times showed an elderly woman being scolded for not wearing a mask in the northern province of Inner Mongolia.

“You’d better go back home and remember to wash your hands,” the voice said over the drone loudspeaker, as the woman walked quickly away.

Tech companies including Baidu and Intellifusion said their AI technologies are being used at temperature checkpoints at railway stations and airports in big cities like Beijing and Shenzhen to reduce waiting time and lessen the risk of contagion.

“Big data and AI is not only instrumental in increasing city management efficiency and health care breakthroughs during public emergency events [like this], but can also empower all industries and become a driving force,” Robin Li, Baidu founder and chief executive, said in a letter to all employees on Monday, the transcript of which was verified by the company.

The system developed by Baidu uses AI to direct an infrared sensor on the foreheads of moving passengers, detecting their body temperatures within a range of 0.05 Celsius, according to an online post by the company on Saturday.

Separately, Chinese internet company Qihoo 360 has partnered with NoSugar Tech to introduce a platform that lets users check if they have recently travelled with someone who contracted the new coronavirus.

NoSugar Tech compiled and manually verified public data from sources such as China’s state television broadcaster and state media such as People’s Daily for input into the platform, which employs Qihoo 360’s artificial intelligence (AI) and big data technology to ensure that the information is updated and reliable.

Users enter the date of their journey and the flight or train number to see if they are in the clear. According to local media reports, more than 21 million people used the service within two days of its launch.

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