Updated: Feb 24
How AI, Automation and Robotics Could Prepare Us for the Next Pandemic
With the tragic events following the global outbreak of Covid-19 most countries were unprepared for a pandemic. Governments have faced a series of shortages in medical staff, gloves, masks, critical life-saving machines like ventilators and even sanitisation products. In these desperate times organisations have turned to key technology verticals within our investment universe to make up the shortfall. Whilst some of these technologies are not in themselves new, they will have a real life-saving impact against the detrimental impact of the virus.
Robotics, automation and AI have clearly helped at many levels, but not as much as they could in a few years when those emerging technologies will become mainstream. We think that a number of those technologies will see an accelerated acceptance and growth. MedTech companies have rolled out robots and drones to help in the fight directly and also to provide services and care to those quarantined or practicing social distancing. The pandemic has fast-tracked the "testing" of robots and drones in public as officials seek out the most expedient and safe way to grapple with the outbreak and limit the spread of the virus. Below we list the main areas where we have seen various technologies in our theme put to use.
Testing, Treatments and Vaccinations
Medical testing companies around the world have been set into action using automated testing machines based on the Polymerase Chain Reaction or PCR. This is an accurate but complicated method of detecting the virus. They start with a simple enough nasal swab on the suspected carrier but then this sample must go through a series of steps to derive the result which would take a lot of man-power to complete if done manually
especially at scale.
Thankfully companies such Seegene, Qiagen and Roche Diagnostics developed testing kits to be used on such machines relatively quickly.
In the case of South Korean company Seegene, they used AI and Big Data methodologies to develop an accurate test kit in 3 weeks, if they had not used these methods, the company estimates it would have taken 2 to 3 months to make such a kit. Even more interesting is that all of this was done without having an actual sample of the virus. They relied on just the details released about the virus from companies like Google who used their DeepMind AI division and its computing power to understand the proteins that might make up the virus and published the findings.
Elsewhere AI was deployed by companies like BenevolentAI which normally uses AI systems to build drugs that can fight the world’s toughest diseases. This is the first time the company focused its product on infectious diseases. Within weeks of the outbreak, it used its predictive capabilities to propose existing drugs that might be useful, some of its suggestions are currently being tested for efficacy by the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention).
The cloud computing resources and supercomputers of several major tech companies coupled with their AI capabilities are being used by researchers to fast-track the development of a cure or vaccine for the virus. The speed these systems can run calculations and model solutions is much faster than standard computer processing. In a global pandemic such as COVID-19, this technology, artificial intelligence and data science have become critical to helping societies effectively deal with the outbreak.
Front Line Robotics
Danish company UVD Robots shipped sterilization robots to Chinese hospitals to disinfect rooms, these robots emit an ultraviolet light throughout the area which is harmful to viruses and bacteria without exposing any human personnel to infection. These robots are remotely controlled by a controller who remains a safe distance away. There are thousands of deaths each year attributed to hospital acquired infections and automation to prevent the spread in hospitals is a potentially a great opportunity for robots.
Elsewhere Chinese company Pudu Technology which makes catering robots have reportedly installed their machines at 40 hospitals in China to ease the pressure on
the staff there.
Emergency Equipment Manufacturing
As Covid-19 is a respiratory disease which attacks the lungs and the patients’ ability to absorb oxygen ventilators – machines which aid breathing have become vital. But as the average critically ill patient will need to be on a ventilator for around 5 weeks, there is currently a global shortage of these machines. As traditional manufacturers race to increase their output, people have been turning to 3D-Printing technologies as a way of rapidly producing components for these machines and saving lives in the short-term.
Infection Control and Monitoring
AI is being used to model the spread of the disease globally so that countries and states can best prepare for new cases. MicroMultiCopter deployed more than 100 drones to Chinese cities that could patrol areas and observe crowds and traffic more efficiently. Those not wearing masks in public all while the not exposing the human operator to the risk of infection. This technology was also used in Italy and the UK, among others. Drones can also be used to broadcast information to a larger area than traditional loudspeakers can. Another way drones are used to fight coronavirus is to spray disinfectant in public spaces. Lastly thermal sensing. Here drones are helping officials with crowd management and to identify people with elevated body temperatures, which could indicate they have the virus.
Japanese company Terra Drone ensured that medical and other supplies were safely transported from Xinchang County’s disease control center to the Xinchang County People’s Hospital without exposing humans to infection. They obtained the first urban drone delivery license issued by the Civil Aviation Administration of China.
Working from Home
As large parts of the world are in a state of lockdown with people being told to work from home and avoid all unnecessary contact with people outside their immediate families technology is playing a part in making this all happen. British online grocer Ocado which specialises in automated grocery fulfilment centres has seen a surge in orders from customers eager to not even go to the supermarket for groceries. Elsewhere there has been strong demand for cloud based compute powered by specialised AI chips as more people than ever before are concurrently working from home. There has been strong demand for services related to this such as digitalised customer contact centres powered by companies such as Israel’s NICE and US AI-powered cybersecurity from Crowdstrike. As housekeepers are often prevented to working in foreign homes during the lockdown, vacuum cleaning, moping and mowing robots can take over the tasks. A number of companies are working on companion robots for elderly or for kids.
All of us here at RoboCap and our partners hope that the threat of the virus recedes again very quickly and that the world gets back to normality as quickly as possible. We expect that the role the technologies mentioned above will have played in preventing, detecting, controlling the spread and eventually curing the virus whilst simultaneously allowing large parts of the economy to continue to operate digitally will not be forgotten.
We expect that even more investment will pour into medical technologies with AI derived cures, automated test and robotic systems which will alleviate the pressure on front-line medical staff at the forefront of this spend. We also believe that companies and indeed governments will accelerate their push into cloud technologies to allow for more of the economy to be run digitally and remotely going forward reducing the economic harm from a similar event.
After the outbreak of the SARS virus in the early 2000’s it took five years to develop a vaccine. With the help from the AI systems of today many hope we will have a vaccine for Covid-19 in under 12-months. Unfortunately reality dictates that this will not be the last deadly virus the world will face but as these technologies progress we envision that the impacts on the economy and even more importantly on peoples very lives will be greatly reduced.