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COVID-19 spells fresh start for digital economy

By Lu Chuanying | China Daily | Updated: 2020-02-17 08:43
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[Cai Meng/China Daily]

In the battle against COVID-19, emerging technologies have stood out by making immense contributions in an unexpected, creative and amazingly responsive way. In the process, they have helped arrest or contain the spread of the deadly virus, thus becoming one of the most reliable and trustworthy means of combating COVID-19.

On one hand, they have ensured people's well-being and helped resume the functioning of society. On the other hand, emerging technologies are helping lift the country's digital economy to a new high in the aftermath of the outbreak, given that these technologies will be more acceptable and recognized by the government, companies and society in China.

As the epidemic has influenced a large number of people across many areas in a short time, traditional methods seemed to be overwhelmed. In the face of such a big challenge, Chinese internet-based companies have shown high efficiency and flexibility. With the help of their cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence, big data, and cloud computing, these internet-based firms have become the most effective support systems for the government and society.

To combat COVID-19, the country's internet-based companies accepted the responsibility to actively explore emerging technologies. A string of companies such as Tencent Holdings Ltd, Alibaba Group, Baidu Inc, JD and iFlytek joined the battle at the outset. They have leveraged big data, AI and 5G to help in remote diagnosis, crowd screening, epidemic prevention and control, and medical security.

That's not all. They have offered remote diagnostic services to help reduce the infection possibility at hospitals. ZTE Corp launched a remote 5G diagnosis and treatment system at West China Hospital of Sichuan University and the Chengdu Public Health Clinical Medical Center. In fact, both hospitals were connected by 5G technology in their remote diagnosis of the novel coronavirus pneumonia.

In addition, platforms like Tencent, Ali Health and Ping An Good Doctor provided online consultation services to reduce offline contact, avoid cross-infection and help make simple assessments and prescriptions quickly and easily.

Tech companies have used big data to screen large crowds at public areas. AI firm Megvii and Chinese online search giant Baidu launched a remote temperature measurement system in some of the subway stations in Beijing, which was used to screen out passengers with high fever.

This is an important application of AI technology in epidemic prevention and control. It is helpful in screening suspected infections in crowded areas while reducing manpower and maintaining the order of public places.

Furthermore, internet-based companies also played a role in confirming, through AI algorithms, the diagnosis of people suspected of carrying infections. Baidu provided genetic sequencing algorithms to research institutions and opened an RNA structure prediction website to improve the speed of RNA spatial structure prediction.

The whole-genome detection and analysis platform, jointly developed by the Damo Academy, a research institute of Alibaba, the Zhejiang Provincial Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and Jieyi Biotechnology Co Ltd, improved greatly the speed and accuracy of the diagnosis of suspected cases.

Also, AI has been applied in various operations against the epidemic. iFlytek opened an "AI plus office" platform, which provides remote office services to enterprises and individuals, which helped enterprises to collaborate remotely and efficiently. At the same time, online education startup Zuoyebang launched a remote education program.

Cloudminds, an intelligent robot firm, has launched a number of smart robot solutions for epidemic prevention and control, including isolation ward service robots, delivery service robots, hospital disinfection and cleaning robots, and mobile patrol temperature measurement robots. These helped in epidemic prevention and control in a three-dimensional way.

In terms of safeguarding medical resources, internet-based companies have played a commendable role with their efficient logistics system. Cainiao not only cooperated with global logistics partners to open free fast-track transportation channels but distributed Alibaba's public welfare procurement as well as donations from domestic and overseas to key epidemic areas.

E-commerce giant JD, courier firm Shunfeng Express and many fresh food apps showed resilience in overcoming the impact of the epidemic on their operations. They maintained efficient operations that enabled users across the country to buy fresh food and daily necessities without any major disruption during the difficult period.

Last but not least, Chinese internet-based companies have helped restore the order of society to a certain extent against all odds. It has been an urgent and common demand for areas except Hubei province to restore the normal economic and social pace as these areas have witnessed a continuous decline of confirmed patients.

It is clear now that emerging technologies like cloud computing and online apps can meet the needs of office work, scientific research, education, and simple medical treatment.

Another heartening outcome is that this sudden epidemic not only made people pay more attention to public health but further promoted the transformation of the Chinese society from a traditional society to an information-driven one. Only by better utilizing the role of emerging technologies in national governance, social governance, and economic development will it be possible to cope with similar crises, if any, in the future.

The government is expected to offer more support to emerging technologies. During the epidemic, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and local governments have issued a number of policies to encourage the use of emerging technologies and boost cooperation with internet companies.

The huge influence of emerging technologies on fighting COVID-19 will prompt the central and local governments to further increase policy support for, and procurement relating to, emerging technologies and related industries, including public health, medical care, education and social governance.

In addition, the application scenarios of emerging technologies have been continuously broadened in response to the epidemic. The nation's internet-based companies have given full play to the spirit of innovation, to expand the application scenarios of such technologies to meet the various needs of the government and society.

These new application scenarios will promote the digital transformation of a large number of traditional industries, driving related technologies and industries such as AI, 5G, and cloud computing to usher in a new era.

The epidemic has accelerated the transformation of an information society as well. Social habits, to a certain extent, will restrict the transition from a traditional society to an information society. During this extraordinary period, people were forced to transfer their traditional living and consumption habits from offline to online.

Just as the 2002-03 SARS eventually resulted in the development of e-commerce in China and led to the rise of a number of online shopping icons such as JD, there is every reason to believe that COVID-19 could unwittingly prove to be an important juncture when new corporate giants came into being, riding society's sudden, unforeseen demand for emerging technologies.

Lu Chuanying is the director of the Research Center for Global Cyberspace Governance, which is part of the Shanghai Institute for International Studies.

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