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Nation gets creative in challenging times

By Fan Feifei and Ma Si | China Daily | Updated: 2020-03-20 10:02 

Li Min/China Daily

Range of technologies used to curb outbreak

Editor’s note: Novel coronavirus pneumonia is posing a worldwide threat. Here, we take a look at how China is playing its role in the global fight against the outbreak by mobilizing a vast amount of resources. This is the sixth part of a series titled “United Actions”.

Wang Jiayi, a 31-year-old fashion magazine editor living in Tongzhou district of Beijing, is relying on a vending machine powered by artificial intelligence at her residential compound to supply her with fresh fruit, vegetables and other necessities.

“I select products displayed on the transparent door of the machine and use my mobile to scan a quick response code. Once it is scanned, the door opens and payment is processed automatically after I make my selection and close the door,” Wang said.

The entire process is convenient and requires no human-to-human contact, she added.

The AI vending machines, developed by e-commerce giant JD’s logistics innovation laboratory, are being rolled out in Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing due to the rising demand for unmanned shopping experiences amid the novel coronavirus outbreak.

JD said the products sold by the machines are sourced from its fresh-food supermarkets, where employees regularly clean and disinfect the machines and also monitor the quality and quantity of produce.

Since the outbreak emerged in China, state-of-the-art technologies, including fifth generation wireless technology (5G), artificial intelligence, big data analysis, robots, cloud computing and drones, have been used widely not only in people’s daily lives, but also in the fight against the pandemic.

The application of such technologies to contain the outbreak stems from China’s long-time, massive input into their research and development, with the country a world leader in these fields.

President Xi Jinping has stressed that the use of digital technologies, such as big data, AI and cloud computing, must be encouraged to enable them to serve as a “pillar” in monitoring and analyzing disease outbreaks, tracing viruses, controlling and preventing epidemics, and in medical treatment and distribution of resources.

On March 4, a meeting of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee emphasized that the country would accelerate the construction of new infrastructure such as 5G networks and data centers.

Market research company International Data Corp has forecast that the outbreak will bring opportunities for 5G applications, remote offices and online activities, unmanned commerce and services, fresh-food e-commerce and online education.

A worker uses a 3D printer to produce protective medical glass at a factory in Changsha, Hunan province. [Photo/Xinhua]

Solutions developed

With the outbreak preventing many people from returning to work and living a normal life, high-tech enterprises have been quick to develop targeted AI and 5G-enabled solutions for different virus control scenarios, providing frontline workers with more flexibility and convenience.

Remote healthcare services powered by 5G are among the most eye-catching applications, with the three major telecom carriers, China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom, providing strong technological support to ensure quality communication services for hospitals in different regions.

For example, on Feb 27, doctors in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province, used 5G technology to treat a severely ill 67-year-old patient in Wuhan, the outbreak’s epicenter and capital of Hubei province.

By using the network’s speed, large-size medical photos and videos can be shared quickly among doctors in different areas of the country, enabling them to formulate the best options for treatment.

Lyu Tingjie, a communications professor at Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, said,”Although remote medical services existed before the commercial use of 5G, this network has solved problems such as video lag and remote control delay experienced under the 4G network, ensuring a nearly real-time operation.”

Wang Zhiqin, deputy head of the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology, a government think tank also known as CAICT, said China is entering a critical period of 5G network construction, with more than 550,000 new base stations expected to start operating by the end of this year.

In the battle against the virus, a string of smart robots powered by 5G technologies are working with medics in Shenzhen, Guangdong.

Developed by Chinese AI pioneer UBTech, these robots are being used at the Third People’s Hospital of Shenzhen to offer medical advice, deliver drugs and to disinfect wards and other areas. They can also check a patient’s temperature and perform a range of other work.

Liu Yue, head of the hospital’s fever outpatient services, said a robot equipped with an AI-enabled fever-screening system can take the temperatures of 200 people in just one minute. “It greatly reduces our burden, and it can also prevent us from missing infected patients,” Liu added.

Similar 5G-powered robots are being used in Hubei, Shanghai, Beijing and other regions as part of broader efforts by the nation’s tech companies to use cutting-edge technologies to fight the outbreak.

Wang, from CAICT, added that 5G-powered telemedicine and smart robots have emerged from trials into front-line practice, while remote office solutions and online teaching have also contributed to quarantine efforts and the resumption of production.

Xiang Ligang, director-general of the Information Consumption Alliance, a telecom industry association, said the outbreak can inject new development momentum into the digital economy in the long run by promoting the transformation of a large number of traditional industries.

The technological prowess, quick response and resilience shown by Chinese tech companies appear to suggest that the outbreak could be a key point for emerging technologies, just as the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, in 2003 triggered an e-commerce “explosion” in the country, he said.

An AI robot disinfects the makeshift Fangcang hospital in Wuhan, Hubei province. [Photo/Xinhua]

Telecommuting surges

Tencent Holdings and Alibaba Group Holding have seen the use of telecommuting tools such as video conferences and online office kits surge as tens of millions of white-collar employees work from home to avoid cross-infection and curb the spread of the virus.

Alibaba’s all-in-one mobile workplace DingTalk has served more than 10 million enterprises and over 200 million people. Meanwhile, to meet the rapidly rising demand for remote offices, Tencent Meeting, which provides free, unlimited use for up to 300 participants per audio or video conference, has increased its computing resources capacity by adding more than 100,000 cloud servers.

With stringent supervision of large-scale population flows critical to preventing the spread of the virus, these two tech giants are also lending a helping hand in community management.

They have introduced electronic exit and entry systems for residential compounds, allowing property management teams to keep precise track of people entering and leaving neighborhoods, including their time of arrival and departure, length of stay and health status.

As more companies resume production, WeChat and Alipay have launched a health QR code system linked to residents’ health status and recent travel history. The system is being used at travel checkpoints in railway stations, on highways and at community level.

Tong Taosang, senior executive vice-president of Tencent and president of the Cloud and Smart Industries Group, said the system aims to provide the government with a better picture of people’s health status during the outbreak, as well as offering new ideas for pushing forward the digitalization of public governance.

“So far, it has covered more than 700 million people nationwide and over 100 cities are preparing to launch the health code system,” Tong said.

He added that the company has also applied its cloud computing capacity and AI-enabled technologies to various industrial platforms and production processes.

Prompt information, including the location of traffic control areas, designated hospitals and cases of infection, is being provided by Baidu Maps to help users cope with the outbreak. By using big data analysis, the company tracks population movements and predicts the spread of the outbreak nationwide.

An agricultural drone disinfects a village in Luanzhou, Hebei province. [Photo/Xinhua]

Shopping habits change

Shoppers are steering clear of bricks-and-mortar stores and switching to online purchasing, with e-commerce platforms that deliver daily necessities and fresh produce witnessing a significant increase in business.

JD Daojia, the on-demand retail platform of the Dada Group, said its overall sales revenue rose by 374 percent year-on-year during the Spring Festival holiday. Consumption of meat rose by 710 percent, vegetables by 440 percent and fruit by 380 percent, compared with the same period last year.

The consultancy Analysys Qianfan said transactions on the fresh-food platform Missfresh surged by 350 percent year-on-year during the holiday. Home delivery orders on Wumart’s Dmall digital platform rose by 95.3 percent on a yearly basis, with sales volume up by 225.7 percent year-on-year.

Raymond Wang, partner at global consultancy Roland Berger, said: “The outbreak has further proved the importance of the internet and digital economy. For example, the e-commerce and online-to-offline, or O2O, business model has solved people’s daily requirements, while the traditional retail industry has taken a big hit.”

He said that in the medium-and long-term, the outbreak would enhance social efficiency and result in a higher access rate for the burgeoning digital economy in terms of O2O, remote working and online education.”This is also a big opportunity for China’s technology and business model innovation-the foundations of the digital economy,” he added.

A fever-screening product is tested at a company in the Zhongguancun science and technology area in Beijing. [Photo/Xinhua]

Companies adapt

Many AI companies have tweaked algorithms and upgraded gadgets, systems and technologies in a variety of ways to adapt them to fight the virus.

Yitu Technology, an AI startup, has developed an intelligent imaging evaluation system, which is being used at the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center to help diagnose cases of novel coronavirus pneumonia.

The system provides a more-efficient and accurate decision-making basis for clinicians and helps with infection prevention and control.

Measuring body temperature is also hugely important in curbing the spread of the virus. SenseTime, an AI pioneer specializing in computer vision and deep learning, has come up with a screening system for fever that integrates sophisticated AI algorithms with infrared thermal technology.

The system can scan up to 10 people per second without direct contact and identify individuals remotely who show symptoms of fever, as well as anyone not wearing a face mask, before notifying the personnel on duty.

Raymond Wang said, “AI helps a lot with medicine development, epidemic forecasting and control, and AI-driven robots will take more responsibility, especially in situations where no contact is expected.”

Meanwhile, agricultural drones have been converted into autonomous precision-spraying tools-highly effective alternatives to large machines for accurately releasing disinfectant in public areas.

DJI, the world’s largest commercial drone manufacturer by market share, has used its agricultural devices to spray disinfectant in residential areas, hospitals and waste treatment plants.

To date, the drones have sprayed disinfectant over 600 million square meters nationwide. Spraying can be completed 50 times faster than using traditional methods, and the drones can also be used remotely to measure temperatures in many communities and at roadside checkpoints.

Zhang Jiaxing, an AI expert, said people are increasingly adapting to new lifestyles.

As a result, online education, working remotely and robot deliveries backed by cutting-edge technologies, such as the internet of things, big data and cloud computing, have been given a significant boost and are expected to maintain growth momentum when the outbreak ends.

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