Technology vs COVID-19

6th July 2020

As we take steps towards the ‘new normal’, maintaining control of the COVID-19 virus using the track and trace method seems to be paramount. However, with many industries already at breaking point due to imposed lock-downs, we can expect to see an urge to get the world moving again, but in ‘the age of information’ what role can technology play, and how reliable is it?

Thermal imaging technology has been at the epicentre of discussion surrounding the aviation industry post lockdown, and most research and reports regarding thermal imaging shed positive insights into its effective use. However, it is important to recognise the limitations of the technology when being used to detect people carrying a COVID-19. The most prevalent concern is the incubation period of the virus, which according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) can be up to 14 days.[1]

This means that although the technology boasts accurate temperature readings for passengers exhibiting symptoms, the thermal imaging does not have the ability to detect passengers incubating the virus who have not yet exhibited symptoms. Additionally, The World Health Organisation has published data suggesting that 80% of COVID-19 infections are mild, or even asymptomatic.[2]

The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine conducted a study in late January which concluded that thermal imaging technology used in airports will detect less than 1 in 5 passengers carrying the virus.[3] Therefore, although thermal imaging technology has been proven to detect anomalies in the temperature of passengers, there is speculation surrounding the use of thermal imaging as an effective COVID-19 detection tool due to the low percentage of passengers that would exhibit a fever, paired with the percentage temperature anomalies missed by the technology.

This is not the first time that we have seen the use of thermal imaging technology used in airports. Monitoring passenger temperatures was prevalent in the 2003 SARS epidemic. During the epidemic, airports in Canada used thermal imaging extensively, but later reported 251 cases of the virus, none of which were detected by thermal imaging.

Thermal imaging also raises logistical problems for the aviation industry. This is due to the impossible distinction between an elevated body temperature related to COVID-19, or an elevated body temperature related to other, common illnesses.  The World Health Organisation has recognised the flaws in using thermal imaging to detect COVID-19 and have suggested that if used, it should be alongside additional control measures such as; health messages, a primary questionnaire and data collection and analysis.[4]

As the aviation industry prepares to fly again, the need for suitable track and trace methods is paramount. The use of technology in the fight against COVID-19 is essential, however, there are limitations to its abilities.

Considering all of the above factors, it would be reasonable to conclude that although the use of thermal imaging technology will help mitigate against the spread of COVID-19, it certainly will not stop the virus crossing borders.

Another important feature in the world of transport post lockdown is the mandatory use of facemasks on public transport and of course, the age of information answered with the development of face mask detection technology, which works by focusing on the area around the person’s eyes, and eyebrows. This type of detection is already being used by Uber in the US, Canada and Mexico. Before starting work, drivers are required to take a picture of themselves wearing a facemask. The app will then use facial recognition technology to confirm if the driver is wearing a mask and if so, they will be allowed to accept work.

Additionally, new software has been developed that is compatible with existing surveillance systems, to identify individuals not wearing masks in larger environments such as airports, hospitals and offices. With the use of a mask essential for public transport, this kind of technology could be extremely useful when managing the spread of COVID-19 and enforcing the compulsory use of masks.

Wearing a facemask not only on public transport, but also in public spaces is very quickly becoming the new normal for people actively trying to limit the spread of COVID-19, but what impact are face coverings having on facial recognition security systems, when facial recognition is crucial to identifying both criminals, and victims of crime?

Many companies have insisted that their facial recognition software is not affected by the wearing of facemasks and that artificial intelligence systems can still accurately identify individuals when half of the face is covered.[5] UK-based Facewatch has said they will be releasing an algorithm that can handle detection and identification based on just a person’s eye and eyebrow region.[6] However, it is frequent for masks to be specifically used by criminals to avoid this technology. For example, during the Hong Kong protests in 2019, participants would often wear facemasks to evade the government’s facial recognition technology.

Although the use of masks is becoming mandatory in many different areas of life in the UK and beyond, it is important that technology does what it does best, evolve. So that the public can continue to be protected from both the internal threats of COVID-19 and the external threats of others.

Finally, comes the practice that we are all so familiar with by this point, social distancing. Although the recommended distance varies from country to country, the key message remains the same, so what role does technology play in keeping us a safe distance apart?

Recently, Amazon launched an artificial-intelligence-based on a programme that is used to enforce social distancing in their workplaces. The software uses existing warehouse cameras to actively monitor employee positions on the work floor and flag up areas of high traffic, which can then be amended. Amazon is also testing a wearable device that will alert employees if they are too close to each other. The device can be set to give a visual, audio or sensory alarm to alert the employee that they are too close.

Technology developed by LociLabs ‘SafeSpace’ also has a contact tracing capability.[7] Therefore, in the event that a user of their wearable device technology reports they are positive for COVID-19, all users who have been in close proximity with the positive individual can be notified immediately of their potential exposure.

So far, this technology is centred towards making workplaces safe and allowing employees to return to work. The technology is not currently available for personal use and would require a substantial amount of the public to voluntarily invest in the technology in order to be effective.

Ultimately, technology is the frontline in the fight against COVID-19 and an essential tool in moving forward towards the ‘new normal’. However, it is important that we resist being led into a false sense of security, that technology is a failsafe method for preventing the spread of the virus as the world gets moving again.