Tweaking China’s coronavirus tech strategy to beat the virus in the West

The scope of such an app is not there to replace the manual system but to inform people and guide them into taking appropriate actions


The Chinese government built the most effective epidemic control system ever created in the history of the world using advanced technologies. In recent weeks, the pandemic in China was under control, with only 50 cases reported daily.

For a country, having 1.4 billion inhabitants, this is a resounding success. However, the system was widely criticised by people in the western world since it requires access to private information about the whereabouts of Chinese people; their chats, social contacts, their purchases and additional information. This data is then stored in central databases and used to fight the spread of the virus with advanced Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithms.

In the following article, we will propose a similar system which is as effective but which addresses the privacy concerns of the individual. The personal data of the individual will never leave the person’s device, but it will still help the centralised system identify potential hotspots.

The only requirement of such a system is that people install an app on their mobile device. With difference to the Chinese system, it doesn’t require an army of video surveillance cameras distributed around the country or biometric scanners installed in the doorways of residential complexes. People do not need to check-in or out of their living quarters either.

The system takes the form of a mobile application, similar to the WeChat which exists in China, and it also integrates different services. So localisation, social media, chats and e-wallets will all be available. However, this is where the similarities end. Rather than having a centralised server, the user’s phone stores all of the personal information.

The user will have full access to the data, and he can choose to retain or delete it. Furthermore, the system will use two AI components, one located remotely and the other on the device per se, as will be explained below.

In the case of the e-Wallet, the first advantage is that payments occur using contactless virtual cards and without exchanging real money.

Thus, this lack of physical exchange automatically reduces the dissemination of the virus.

The e-wallet also includes information about shops visited together with the purchases. The system stores the location of the shop and logs the time in the user’s device. This piece of information is then processed at a later stage by the localisation module.

From the purchases, the local AI can gather information regarding the wellbeing of the individual. It can easily infer that if certain items (such as medicines) are purchased, then the person or someone close to him is most probably ill. The AI then starts a chat with the user, enquires whether he or someone close to him has some symptoms and proposes a way forward.

These can include beginning self-quarantine, making an appointment to be swabbed or taking any measure which deemed appropriate. The important thing is that the choice remains in the hands of the users, and no information gets shared with any department. Such an AI system is possible because today, we have AI engines which efficiently work on a mobile device without having to communicate with a server. One such tool is TensorFlow Lite specifically designed for on-device machine learning.

Furthermore, the applications of mobile-medicine are on the rise. There are various symptom-tracker apps which help users make appropriate decisions on whether they need institutionalised care or not. It also provides symptom relief for minor illnesses which they can handle on their own. If the user requires specific assistance, it can connect him directly with the appropriate provider.

Médicins sans Frontières even went a step further and created the first Mobile Triage App. Carnegie Mellon University went a step further and just launched the first COVID Voice Detector which claims to test if the user has the virus, only by talking through his mobile phone. Of course, this system is still experimental, and they give no guarantee on its accuracy.

The localisation module provides precise information regarding the whereabouts of the person (within an error of a few meters). Of course, this information is only stored on the device and not shared with anyone.

We can use this information without compromising the user’s identity through a novel AI approach called federated learning. The system works as follows; the device downloads the AI model from the server and improves it locally by learning from the data on the phone. A summary of the new model is created and sent to the cloud.

No personal information ever leaves the device, and it is impossible to extract any information from the update sent because it is just a summary. With the AI model on the device, the system knows which areas of the city are dangerous. If the user comes in close contact to a location which had someone infected with the virus, the AI alerts him immediately and gets him to avoid that area.

Through the social media module, if a user gets infected, he can easily send a warning message to his social circle of friends and alert them so that they can take the necessary precautions.

The system can also automatically calculate a Health code which can be either; red, amber or green. This coding is there to help users make choices which protect the safety of others. A green colour means that the person is free to roam unrestricted. People who just returned from abroad or might have been in an infected area would have a yellow code, and the system will advise them to limit their mobility for a few days. Those who are probably infected fall under the red category and they will have to stay in quarantine.

The scope of such an app is not there to replace the manual system but to inform people and guide them into taking appropriate actions. It also relieves the stress from the healthcare system by leveraging over the power of AI to reach more people. In the end, no system is perfect and achieving a balance is not easy.

However, by combining the benefits of the Chinese system with the privacy standards expected in most western countries, we will have a new powerful tool which can save countless lives automatically.

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