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China's giant tech companies join fight against deadly coronavirus

'Nurse robots,' big data, artificial intelligence and chatbots become unlikely lifesavers

A boy watches a robot at Shanghai's Pudong International Airport as Chinese tech companies start to deploy their wealth, technological prowess and massive databases to help combat the coronavirus outbreak.    © Reuters

HONG KONG/PALO ALTO, U.S. -- From cloud-based artificial intelligence to chatbots and even "nurse robots," Chinese tech companies are deploying their wealth, technological prowess and massive databases to help combat the coronavirus outbreak, which has so far killed 170 people and infected over 7,000 around the country.

Ride-hailing company Didi is ferrying medical workers across certain cities. Shenzhen-based Tencent Holdings, whose WeChat instant messaging app has over 1 billion users, has launched an outpatient clinic map to help WeChat users locate the nearest clinic.

Meanwhile Jack Ma, China's richest man and founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba, is donating 100 million yuan ($14.5 million) of which 40 million will go toward Chinese efforts to create a vaccine.

Alibaba, which has teamed up with the Beijing-based Global Health Drug Discovery Institute to develop an open-source coronavirus data platform, has also made available its cloud-based AI-powered computing platform to global institutions to accelerate viral gene sequencing, protein screening and other research needed to treat or prevent the disease.

"This money will help various medical research efforts and help disease prevention," Ma's foundation said in a statement.

Although the initiatives are by private companies, Beijing has long made the development of artificial intelligence, helped by the vast amounts of data it collects about its citizens, into a national strategic priority.

"AI technologies can accurately sense, forecast, and provide early warning of major situations," a 2017 National Council plan prophesied, "which will significantly elevate the capability and level of social governance, playing an irreplaceable role in effectively maintaining social stability."

Indeed, Baidu, the search engine company, is using its data to help track down suspected patients and map the flow of citizens in all Chinese cities, including Wuhan. (In Singapore, Grab and Gojek, two leading Southeast Asian ride hailing companies, are providing similar passenger mapping information to local authorities.)

Hong Kong-based SenseTime, the world's leading AI software developer whose products are often used for surveillance, is also helping Beijing to develop an algorithm that aims to improve the accuracy of identifying fever patients in a crowd. Bytedance, the owner of viral media app TikTok, is meanwhile contributing financial aid.

The engagement of Chinese technology companies comes as the number of coronavirus cases in China has overtaken the number of infections in the country during the SARS epidemic in 2002/03.

Since the first coronavirus patient was identified in early December, more than 7,800 cases have been reported worldwide as the virus has spread to at least 18 regions outside mainland China, among the latest being the United Arab Emirates.

Not all of the Chinese initiatives involve the latest in high-technology -- although many do.

To help scientists accelerate the process of finding a cure, Baidu said on Thursday that it has developed an AI system that can shorten the amount of time needed for virus analysis from nearly an hour to less than half a minute. Besides providing the solution free of charge, the company has also donated 300 million yuan to aid epidemic research. This week, China-based Clover Biopharmaceuticals said it had begun development of a vaccine.

Such Chinese initiatives to develop a vaccine are running alongside separate projects by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, a global body set up in Norway three years ago, to combat epidemics.

The U.S. physician spearheading this effort has said that he aims to start clinical trials of a vaccine within 16 weeks, the Financial Times reported on Wednesday, although scientists have also cautioned that the need for rigorous trials and manufacturing means a vaccine may not be ready for worldwide use for around a year.

Meanwhile, back on the ground in China where the virus has now spread to every province including distant Tibet, Baidu and Alibaba have launched AI-enabled chatbots to help local communities conduct questionnaires, collect resident health care data or answer simple queries such as how to best dispose of used face masks.

More mechanically, in a country that has as many industrial robots as the U.S. and Europe combined, a Chinese robot startup is also lending a hand.

TmiRob, a medical robotics company based in Shanghai, told the Nikkei Asian Review that it has deployed dozens of robots at hospitals in Wuhan and Shanghai, helping sterilize hospitals, deliver medications, and check body temperatures.

"Some nurses are also afraid of infections, so our robots can help them treat patients while reducing their exposure to the virus," said Ma Xiayi, an executive at TmiRob.

Even though Ma and her colleagues have returned to work despite the extended New Year holiday, she said the company was still struggling to cope with a deluge of orders from hospitals in Guangzhou, Shenzhen and elsewhere.

Even for those that can get a robot, Ma said that there was not enough to handle the work.

"Once the robot sterilizes one area, hospitals then take it to another place to continue the work," Ma said. "It is far from enough," she sighed.

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