AI, ML, and How China Escaped The Coronavirus Pandemic Quickly

COVID-19 has caused a massive attack on its economy, healthcare system, and a complete lockdown in most countries. The way of life has almost completely halted in 70% of the world, and businesses have taken a hit. However, one may have noticed on the countless apps created to track the advent of the spread of the virus that the number of new cases in China has hurtled to zero. How has China managed to eradicate the virus in its country in just three months? Some cite bioterrorism as the reason for this, accusing China of purposely releasing the virus to jumpstart an already oncoming recession. But let’s consider an alternative view on this.

You may wonder what Biology has to do with Technology, and considering that you have come to a Technology Blog, I may cast doubt on what tech has to do with China’s escape. The answer is simple: China leveraged AI and ML to control and slow the spread of the coronavirus.

China’s Social Credit System

The Social Credit System is a national reputation system developed by the Chinese government. It is an initiative that calls for the establishments of a unified record system for individuals, businesses, and the government to be tracked and evaluated for trustworthiness.

In democratic words, it’s a system of mass surveillance, tracking every move of Chinese citizens. While Beijing insists the system is meant to create a “fair, transparent and predictable” business environment, there are concerns about how the government might use the data, especially in light of escalating trade tensions with the U.S. 

The new system could also bring China significantly closer to its goal of tracking the actions of people and businesses so that it can reward behaviors it likes and punish behaviors it doesn’t — the so-called “social credit” system. The new database enables the government to track and monitor the activities of all businesses in China. It also seeks to improve how companies comply with the law and raise the penalty for those working with partners involved with fraudulent activity.

The Chinese Tech Ecosystem

The QR code inside the Alipay app. Green is good, and allows the holder to travel freely. Raymond Zhong/The New York Times

As explained in an earlier article The US-China Tech Cold War, China has a Great Firewall, blocking most software and apps entering into everyday use among Chinese citizens. Chinese Citizens use apps that are monitored by the government. They use WeChat to talk with their friends, use AliPay to make purchases at the local grocery, and have a social credit app that tracks their movement and maintains a social score.
Citizens in Wuhan are characterized as Green, Yellow, and Red. If you are Red, you cannot go our for a certain period, yellow and you can’t avail certain government benefits.
China has 1 surveillance camera for every 4 citizens. That is almost 350 million surveillance cameras to snoop on citizens and keep them in complete control. China thus used these tools to control the spread of the virus.

The Use of AI and ML

SenseTime has created smart cameras for the government that can help catch criminals but also track average citizens.  CBS NEWS

As soon as the government of China realized the advent of the novel coronavirus, teams of technology experts swarmed in to control the spread. They developed software to allow them to contact-trace the virus, allowing them to contain the spread of the infection effectively. When a citizen was tested positive, China’s surveillance system marked the Social Credit Score of that user. Face-matching software then “virtually” contact traced each person who came into contact with the positive case using their several millions of surveillance camera and sent a notification to each user, demanding them to self-isolate. They heavily leveraged AI and ML to stop the spread of the virus. If the positive case had visited a grocery store or any other shop, the government would demand the store to close and send all employees into self-isolation, all using the state-owned payment app.

Conclusion

Empty streets in Paris, under lockdown

COVID-19 is still exponentially spreading in several countries. Governments should take harsh action to halt the spread of the virus. The use of Technology in China is an excellent example of why controlled surveillance is necessary to help in times like these. The use of AI and ML has served to be a fast, powerful method of contact-tracing enabled the Chinese government to slow down the spread of the coronavirus exponentially.

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