How emerging digital technologies could help respond to COVID-19

By Alistair Nolan

Senior Policy Analyst, OECD Directorate for Science, Technology and Innovation

Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, much has been written about the potential benefits of mobile track and trace technologies, and their implications for privacy, security and equity. But track and trace apps are not the only technologies that have been deployed to help counter the pandemic. A range of digital tools are already being used to combat COVID-19 – including drones, collaborative computing and others – and they could provide even greater assistance if their potential was fully realised.

Drones have been used during the crisis to share information through loudspeakers, deliver medical supplies and even take people’s temperatures using thermal imaging. Yet while other technologies such as hybrid virtual-reality (VR), augmented reality and artificial intelligence (AI) training systems could help meet the urgent need for respiratory therapists, critical care nurses and operators of ventilator systems, such technologies are not widely used for training medical personnel, if at all.  

Government policies can play a critical role in realising the potential of these digital technologies to help mitigate the current pandemic, protect front-line health workers and improve readiness for new outbreaks or future contagions. Two technologies – collaborative computing and healthcare robotics – provide highly relevant examples.

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Collaborative computing aims to pool computing resources to address medical and other research challenges. For example, Folding@home is an app that combines the computing power of users’ devices to improve understanding of abnormal protein folding, which can harm the human body. Once downloaded, the app takes unused computational resources – for instance, when a computer is idle – and uses them to process scientific data and help run simulations.

Combining many small computational contributions can quickly provide the equivalent of high-performance computing resources. In fact, Folding@home set a record earlier this year, when its combined computing power reached 1.55 exaFlops (for comparison, if a period of 1 900 billion years was divided into minutes, this is the number of calculations a one-exaFlop computer could do in a single second). Folding@home has been used to address protein-folding challenges linked to Ebola and other medical emergencies. High-power computing resources are unevenly distributed across research institutions and countries. In lower-resourced settings, collaborative computing could therefore help to fight the current pandemic, possible future waves of infection and/or entirely new contagions.

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Recent years have seen increased use of robots in hospital settings, mostly in surgery, basic automation, remote measurement of vital signs, transport of hazardous materials, disinfection and meal delivery for persons in quarantine. But other applications are emerging, or on the horizon. For instance, researchers are exploring ways to use robots for autonomous nasal swabbing, to provide physical assistance to the frail, help combat loneliness for persons in quarantine, and apply non-invasive treatment for some conditions, to name a few examples. And as AI, hybrid mechanical-electronic systems and other technologies advance, robots may eventually be used to perform more complex procedures and diagnostics.

Some robot systems are increasingly widespread in hospitals, such as robot surgeons, disinfector robots that use high-intensity ultra-violet light to destroy pathogens, and autonomously guided vehicles that transport waste and laboratory samples. But general unfamiliarity with the potential of robots, together with the high cost of leading-edge robot systems, institutional inertia, and the incipient nature of some applications, have so far constrained their widespread use.

Within the context of COVID-19, greater use of robots in hospitals could lower infection risk for health workers, reduce heat stress from wearing protective equipment and allow staff to focus on higher-priority tasks during and after the crisis. The Antwerp University Hospital, for example, used a robot  to ensure that patients were wearing masks and that their masks were properly positioned. The robot also screened patients for signs of fever and admitted those who could safely attend an appointment. The system, which speaks 35 languages, has helped reduce crowding among waiting patients while also protecting staff.

Image credit: iStock

So how can policy help accelerate these and other technologies, and put them to use during public health emergencies?

First, policies may need to be tailored depending on the technology. With respect to drones, for example, governments could examine potential benefits and explore options for their safe deployment, such as creating air corridors for flights between medical centres and places of need. For systems that use robots to deliver foodstuffs or other essential items to quarantined households, the balance in regulation between risk-avoidance and innovation might shift towards the latter (especially when streets are sparsely populated or even empty). Governments could also examine how to accelerate the deployment of existing robot solutions, for instance by providing a platform that highlights leading-edge solutions. Grants, R&D-based procurement, innovation prizes, test beds, experimentation in regulation design and targeted R&D for robotics research all have a role to play in advancing the field and preparing for future challenges.

Public private partnerships could also help. For example, governments could consult with the principal developers of VR, augmented reality and AI hybrid systems, together with health authorities, to assess whether such technology could accelerate medical staff training. So far, however, such partnerships have not been developed.

The OECD is working to help member countries in these fields by gathering evidence and examining policy approaches and effectiveness across countries; engaging in foresight work and examining the process of foresight itself; and working with governments and leading experts to assess emerging policy needs. For instance, the OECD Science, Technology and Innovation Outlook 2020 will feature an in-depth focus on robotics, examining emerging robot capabilities, current and future uses in healthcare, and policy priorities, from accelerating diffusion to better allocating R&D. Such analysis could provide valuable insights to governments as they respond to and recover from COVID-19, and help strengthen their health systems for future crises.

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