COVID-19 and the advent of a “contactless economic system”


After successfully suppressing the spread of COVID-19 in Wuhan, the original epicenter of the novel coronavirus, China has emerged as a world leader in the fight against the pandemic, providing assistance to countries that have subsequently struggled in their efforts to contain the pandemic, especially Italy and Spain.

In facing the crisis, China drew its strength from its political system which prioritizes the interests of the whole (i.e. the Chinese Communist Party system), without regard for the freedom of its citizens. citizens or individual wishes. The CCP took the opportunity to launch a propaganda campaign to overcome the stigma of the “Chinese virus” (in the words of US President Donald Trump) and extol the superiority of the Chinese system of government.

Notably, China has used the core technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (artificial intelligence, big data and 5G) to track down people infected with the virus, disinfect contaminated areas, deliver goods, check people’s temperatures and attempt various new initiatives. in telecommunications.

For example, Alibaba introduced a color QR code that can immediately indicate how exposed a person is to the virus based on their medical condition and travel history. Only people with a green QR code were allowed to go to their workplace or enter public buildings. Anyone caught entering false information was classified as “red”.

WeChat has developed an app that allows smartphone users to assess their risk of infection by checking whether they have been in contact with an infected person on a train or plane. In some Chinese cities, metro passengers had to register under their real names or make a reservation in advance.

Megvii has developed an AI temperature measurement system that can filter 15 people per second within a 5-meter radius, with a measurement error of just 0.3 degrees Celsius.

Alibaba Group’s DAMO Academy has launched an AI diagnostic system that can read CT scans of people suspected of being infected with the coronavirus and make a diagnosis in just 20 seconds.

A telephone health check-up service quickly took off. Previously, it took between five and seven hours to perform checks on 200 people, but with the new service the same task can be completed in five minutes.

Wuhan and other regions hard hit by the virus have used robots and unmanned drones to deliver medicine and food to quarantined patients, monitor their condition, measure temperatures and disinfect contaminated areas. According to the start-up 36Kr’s news and data website, JD Logistics quickly dispatched two driverless delivery vehicles to Wuhan. The company received between 10 and 12 orders per day from Wuhan No.9 People’s Hospital; 50 to 70% of these deliveries would have been made by the autonomous delivery vehicle.

Even before the country was hit by the COVID-19 epidemic, the online medical platform WeDoctor launched a free 24-hour consultation service. The surge in the number of people reluctant to visit hospitals due to the virus has popularized the concept of online medical care.

Although remote working was already common even before the outbreak, Alibaba provided its DingTalk teleworking platform for free to half (or around 10 million) of Chinese companies, bringing its total membership to 200 million. At present, more than 300 million employees of 18 million enterprises in China are working remotely.

With the postponement of the new school semester, China’s education ministry has partnered with telecom operators to create a nationwide online study platform. About 180 million primary, secondary and secondary school students now receive online lessons.

Not only has the global pandemic forced us to embrace the new practice of social distancing, in which handshakes, hugs and kisses are all avoided, but a new ‘contactless economic system’ is also emerging. , in which people live, move, work and even teach and learn without coming into contact with others.

At some point, the threat posed by COVID-19 will subside and people will be able to resume shaking hands and kissing. By then, however, the innovations that make up the infrastructure of our new contactless economic system will have taken root through social implementation. And in this regard, it seems likely that China will have an overwhelming competitive advantage.

As the virus spread rapidly in the United States, the Chula Vista Police Department in California purchased two drones from Chinese manufacturer DJI. Drones have been used to enforce the statewide lockdown: drone speakers warn people that gatherings and events are banned, while their surveillance cameras can photograph people’s faces even in the dark. night.

Not so long ago, the US government cited national security concerns as a warning against the use of Chinese-made drones. But the COVID-19 threat has left no room for such concerns. As Deng Xiaoping said, “It doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.”

A “contactless business system” carries the unpleasant prospect of extra distance between people becoming the “new normal”. The technology that allows us to measure a person’s temperature from anywhere could evolve into a technology that can “sense” human emotions such as joy, sorrow or anger. Such a tool could allow bullies to identify anyone in their audience who is trying to hide feelings of anger or dissent. Indeed, Yuval Harari, the author of “Homo Deus”, warns against the advent of this type of “biometric surveillance company”.

Yoichi Funabashi is President of the Asia-Pacific Initiative and former Editor-in-Chief of Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his column in the monthly Bungei Shunju.

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