China’s Use of IT to Fight the Coronavirus Prompts Wider Applicability and Governance Questions

Summary Bullets:

• China has become a test bed for the potential to harness IT to manage and mitigate the effects of major health crises like the coronavirus.

• The widespread use of technologies like AI, big data, robotics, and blockchain raises questions about wider applicability, and concerns about longer-term governance.

Recent weeks have seen China emerge as a test bed for the potential to harness IT to manage and mitigate the effects of major health crises like the coronavirus. As of 11th March, China had almost 80,800 confirmed cases of the virus, also known as COVID-19, which had killed over 3,000 people. The economic impact of the virus has also been widely documented and includes disruptions to supply chains and lost business for countless shops, bars, and restaurants.

But China has also seen several applications of IT to help combat and manage impact of the virus. Examples include the use of workplace collaboration tools such as Alibaba’s DingTalk, Tencent’s WeChat, and ByteDance’s Feishu by businesses, hospitals, schools, and universities. These platforms enable various remote working arrangements, as well as the use of online classrooms, which support distance learning. Others include the provision of digital mapping tools. Baidu has created an epidemic map feature on the Baidu Map App that offers real-time location information about confirmed and suspected cases of the virus, as well as travel disruptions caused by enforced quarantines. Meanwhile, Tencent provides a self-examination tool on its WeChat platform to help users experiencing symptoms such as a fever or cough self-evaluate their condition and make any necessary arrangements. Tencent also maintains a map depicting clinics and hospitals that treat coronavirus patients.

However, it is the use of emerging technologies like AI, big data, robotics, and blockchain that illustrate the extent to which IT can help manage and alleviate the effects of a major health crisis. AI has seen various applications. In China, AI software developed by Beijing start-up, Infervision, has been deployed at multiple hospitals, which are using it to analyse CT scans for signs of the virus. Separately, both Alibaba and Baidu have both made their AI gene sequencing technologies available to research institutes, which are using them to find a vaccine and other treatments for the virus. Other applications of AI include surveillance cameras that are able to measure body temperatures, and which use body and facial data to identify individuals.

Applications of AI often dovetail with the use of big data. A more controversial deployment of big data has been Health Code, a government program that is hosted on the Alipay app platform, and which can also be accessed via other app platforms, including WeChat. The program collects self-reported end user data, which can then be accessed by the police and government authorities. It uses a three-scheme color code to indicate whether users can travel freely, or whether they should report to authorities for potential quarantine.

Robotics is also being leveraged, with robots deployed in hospitals to sterilize quarantined wards. Meituan-Dianping, an online food retailer, has began using autonomous vehicles to deliver groceries within Beijing’s Shunyi district, and is likely to launch similar “contactless delivery” in parts of the capital. Flying drones are also being put to work. For example, in Xinchang delivery drones developed by Japan’s Terra Drone are used to deliver medical supplies between the People’s Hospital of Xinchang and the provincial disease control center.

Meanwhile, blockchain has seen several novel applications, including its use by China’s foreign exchange regulator to provide foreign businesses with access to export trade financing. In a separate initiative, Ant Financial is using blockchain-based mutual aid platform, Xiang Hu Bao, to distribute financial payments to members affected by the coronavirus.

With China mobilizing its enormous IT arsenal to tackle the impact of the coronavirus, the crisis-management potential of AI, big data, robotics, and blockchain will be scrutinized for applicability elsewhere. However, alongside assessments of the wider potential of these technologies will be questions about the ethical and social implications of specific uses. Key concerns include the long-term governance of AI-based surveillance and tagging technologies, and the potential for captured information to be used for a much broader range of purposes – including state control. They also include concerns about the potential for workers in some industries to be permanently replaced by robots that are less costly and easier to manage. Such concerns are likely to feature prominently in future debates about efficacy and ethics of such technologies, even once the coronavirus is brought under control.


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