COVID-19 has had devastating consequences across the world, with tens of thousands of lives lost among almost two million cases and the global economy virtually shut down. 

Could such a catastrophic pandemic be prevented in the future? Technology can provide some solutions. I detail five technologies that could come to fruition in the near-future to help stop the next pandemic.

1 Early-warning AI

It is apparent that governments need to have better ‘eyes’ on the problem with better tools to predict and forecast pandemic risks.

AI needs data to learn and build models with, and using the spread of other pathogens plus using rich data from the present pandemic scientists will be able to train neural networks to spot patterns and so build prediction models when the onset of a new virus is found.

AI could follow online media reports and social media to build up a map of the potential spread of the virus and the routes it could take, the number of potential deaths and even how blocking off routes and adopting preventative measures could affect the death toll and number of infections.

The key for scientists is finding the right, rich data and collecting it now during this pandemic. Data scientists already have models using Google queries to map the spread of normal flu. Can this be adapted with mobile data from the present pandemic to build a forecasting model that will give policymakers the foresight when the first few cases of a novel virus are spotted again.

2 Digital surveillance

Apps are already being proposed to trace the coronavirus, so an alert would automatically be sent to anybody who had been in contact or in the vicinity of somebody who had tested positive.

But in the future with the advent of 5G and the Internet of Things (IoT) this can be integrated into a surveillance system where with cars, buses, CCTV and even buildings connected this tracking could become very efficient and detailed.

This leads to the potential of mobile devices, web cameras, connected IoT and surveillance systems to track people's movements, crowd behavior, and locations. A concern right now is the lack of awareness of some people to take the guidance on social distancing seriously and such tracking would be a great help in enforcing this.

Companies already track people in scaled-down versions. In retail anonymised counting of footfall through malls and shops provides data on crowd frequency and volume patterns. Google maps, for example, has a personal history of our individual movement locations all year round thanks to our phones, which it has recently made public.

What is needed is to move this onto a stage where this data becomes not passive but active management to serve a pandemic and any emergency scenario.

Indeed, the World Health Organization have been advising that transport and movement of people is tracked, so technology can help accelerate this. It does raise potential issues and concerns about people’s freedoms, but the necessity for a real-time human-to-human tracking as we have seen during this pandemic is vital.

3 Social media alerts

With a lockdown affecting millions across many countries, we have become more reliant on social media and texting than ever.

Authorities should be able to use these channels to send out mass public alerts of incidents and instructions of changing behaviour, such as rules around social distancing.

This sounds Orwellian but is already used in the Bay Area counties in California, for example, to send community-wide alerts of incidents and guidance.

In the future the likes of Facebook, Google and Twitter should be able to play a role in technical assistance to push responsible behaviour and information actively at people to seek improvements in awareness and behavior.

This might be an opt-in or opt-out system for people from a privacy point of view, but it is not hard to see the potential benefits when compared to old style news broadcasts and the lack of connection to actual personal behavior tracking.

Our mobile phone geo-location tracking can help with enforcing social distancing. Patterns of movement and actual microlocation data would be able to confirm if crowd behavior and crowd densities were actually occurring. Google maps does this all the time with traffic alerts and the orange and red colors of road congestion.  

The use of web cam surveillance, which is widespread, could be used for facial recognition and spotting crowds gathering too, and then alerts to people’s phones telling them to disperse could be sent. This would step over the line of confidentially, but in such extraordinary times might be necessary as a policing tool.

4 Speeding-up vaccinations

We are told finding a vaccine might take up to 18 months before some concrete results are made public. This must already be a top priority for medical research and finding new innovative ways to speed up these processes may occur as a side-effect of the current crisis.

We must all hope that necessity is the mother of invention as the current suppression strategy in place is just that, waiting until a cure is found.

There are consumer devices already on the market that plug into your mobile phone to measure temperature, heart rate, breathing and glucose, which can help the monitoring of potential vaccines.

Smart Tattoo, for example, uses wearable technology that has been trialled for monitoring body chemistry, but the key challenge that we are seeing reported is that this still requires specialist equipment and skills to do reliable testing.

5 AI to identify infected individuals

Again this sounds Orwellian but there is the technology to use facial recognition and temperature detection to identify potentially infected individuals.

Such a system would spot people with the beginnings of a fever as they walked around the streets or to-and-from work, it could even send them an alert on their phone to visit a doctor immediately, simultaneously alerting authorities and flagging up a potential risk.

It would involve many surveillance cameras being installed in public, but it could isolate where the outbreak is.

Mark Skilton is Professor of Practice in Informaton Systems & Management and teaches Digital Leadership on the Executive MBA and Executive MBA (London). He also lectures on Data Analytics & Artificial Intelligence on MSc Management of Information Systems & Digital Innovation.

Follow Mark Skilton on Twitter @mskilton.

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