The future tech helping battle the pandemic

We’ve struggled to find a use for chatbots, 3D printers and drones, but innovative tech is now being used to fight COVID-19

Future tech is often a solution in search of a problem. Right now, though, the world has plenty of problems. Here are six ways that future tech has been used – well and not so well – to help address the challenges raised by COVID-19. 

3D printers

The technology we hoped would revolutionise manufacturing has proven a damp squib in some ways: while 3D printing continues to evolve and add new materials, leading companies have shut up shop as the revolution in home manufacturing failed to take hold.

But, as the pandemic made it clear hospitals around the world lacked the necessary ventilators to treat the most dangerously ill patients, 3D-printing companies and their customers stepped in. 3D-printable designs for medical equipment have been made available, letting companies get to work filling the gap in ventilators. 

That includes printer company 3D Systems, and customers Lonati and Isinnova, who teamed up to print key ventilator components. “One of the greatest benefits of additive manufacturing is that it allows companies to reduce the dependency on the supply chain, manufacture parts internally or make them on demand,” said Vyomesh Joshi, president and CEO of 3D Systems, in a statement. “And this is what we’re asking our network, and encouraging the industry to help us do right now – circumvent the supply chain to manufacture these PPE (personal protective equipment) and life-saving devices as quickly as possible.”

It also enables creativity. 3D Systems helped print hundreds of valves for an emergency ventilator mask designed by an Italian doctor, Renato Favero, who modified snorkelling masks donated by the sports equipment retailer Decathlon. Plenty of others in the 3D-printing industry have also stepped up, meaning that we’ve finally found a use for 3D printers: saving lives. 

Drones

British police have shelled out millions for drones, and are now finding out ways to put the whirring toys to use to support their work. Derbyshire Police, for example, has used its drone with a thermal camera to look for homes growing marijuana, as well as to search spaces that were deemed unsafe for officers, including abandoned buildings. 

Now the drone has a new use: nagging dog walkers to leave national parks and go back to their homes. Derbyshire Police used drone footage to make a short clip of people walking in Curbar Edge in the Peak District, hoping to encourage others to stay at home as advised by the government and saying “the message is still not getting through”. The move was criticised as “sinister” by digital rights group Big Brother Watch, and partially led to new guidance about how police should enforce the lockdown laws, but at least the drones aren’t gathering dust. 

Virtual reality

VR has struggled to find purpose with mainstream audiences, with headsets failing to take off despite the best efforts of Oculus and HTC. However, researchers at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, DC have put the neglected tech to use to fight COVID-19. 

One of the challenges of this pandemic has been treating the patients who are hardest hit by COVID-19 and understanding exactly what’s happening to their lungs. The hospital saw its first COVID-19 patient in mid-March and his condition quickly worsened. To understand why, doctors made a 3D image of his lungs to see the damage in VR. What they saw was alarming – but helped treat the patient. 

“There is such a stark contrast between the virus-infected abnormal lung and the more healthy, adjacent lung tissue,” explained Dr Keith Mortman, chief of thoracic surgery at the hospital, in its podcast. “And it’s such a contrast that you do not need an MD after your name to understand these images.” Such is the power of virtual reality – and the damage caused by COVID-19. 

Robotics

Medical staff on the front line are dying from infections passed on by their patients. We don’t yet have the robotics in place to help doctors and nurses operate at a distance from those sick with COVID-19, but it’s clear to see how automation could help. 

Indeed, there are places where robotics are already helping in the fight against this pandemic. In China, robots were used to deliver meals to people under quarantine in hotels. Meanwhile, in Thailand, hospitals have been rolling out small robots equipped with displays to communicate with patients without risk of infection, as well as dole out food and medicine.

Danish company UVD Robots says that its ultraviolet cleaning robots have been shipped to China, Italy and elsewhere to zap viruses with light to help stop the spread of infections. “We are now helping solve one of the biggest problems of our time, preventing the spread of bacteria and viruses with a robot that saves lives in hospitals every day,” said Claus Risager, UVD Robots chairman, in a statement. It’s a clear example of how robotics can actually support human workers, rather than replacing jobs as so many fear. 

AI and algorithms

There’s no question that artificial intelligence and algorithms have already had an impact on our lives – but they could save them too. These technologies are being used in a wide range of ways to help battle the novel coronavirus, from tracking cases to smart symptom checkers. 

Doctorlink is one example. This online symptom checker’s algorithm was updated to include details about COVID-19 to help people understand whether they’re at risk from the disease and what steps to take next – and to reassure the “worried well” that they’re fine and should simply stay home. 

“The symptom assessment app was first updated to detect potential cases of COVID-19 in January and is updated daily to reflect new guidance on the novel coronavirus from NHS England, Public Health England and the UK government,” said Rupert Spiegelberg, CEO of Doctorlink. “The latest release, which is available to the million patients across England, includes new logic to identify patients who are vulnerable due to their age or underlying health conditions and provide them with appropriate advice.”

AI is also being used to track the spread of the pandemic – including using our smartphone data for contact tracing – and to develop medicines, with British startup BenevolentAI using its predictive system to analyse already approved pharmaceuticals for their ability to help treat COVID-19.

Chatbots

Chatbots are stupid. You ask them a question and they can only answer if they figure out what you’re trying to say – and if they have that answer preprogrammed into them. But the World Health Organization (WHO) has found a use for the most basic of future technologies: fighting global misinformation about the pandemic. 

The chatbot is available in messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Viber, making it easy to fact-check information forwarded by family and friends. To access the chatbot on WhatsApp, send a message saying “hi” to +41797818791. You’ll then get access to a menu of options, including the latest figures, how to protect yourself, travel advice and fact checking, as well as a question and answer service. 

“The WHO aims to reach as many people as possible with reliable health information through innovative digital technology,” said WHO director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “Information is power and can help save lives during this pandemic.” A life-saving chatbot? Who would have thought

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