The new power of the technologies of immobility

Published 1 April 2020 / By Sharifah Muhammad Talib Alhinai

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Within three short months, the COVID-19 Crisis has turned the global mobility paradigm "on its head", and many of us – an estimated 1.5 billion plus to be more precise – are finding ourselves having to adjust to a new normal of increasingly stationary lives for an indefinite period of time.

What has been remarkable is the role of new technologies in enforcing human immobility, at the same time as the rise in the mobility of technology such as robots and drones.

Nowhere has this been exemplified better so far than in the case of China. The lock down on China’s city of Wuhan, the first epicentre of COVID-19, is slowly being lifted now, and there are promising signs that life will soon go back to normal, or some semblance of normalcy at least. Various analysts are attributing this turnaround to the strict measures the government of China employed to contain the virus, something a number of other governments around the world have been reluctant to do. But these strict measures could not have been as effective on a city of approximately 11 million without the help of new technologies, the importance of which was realized by the Chinese government.

In March, President Xi Jinping called on the aid of the country’s fast-growing tech sector to help combat the lethal virus. Emerging companies and local giants like SenseTime responded. In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, SenseTime, a leading AI company, updated its facial recognition software to be able to identify people not adhering to quarantine measures with (as it claims) a relatively high level of accuracy even if they are wearing surgical masks, so that they can be tracked and penalized. Similarly, in what can be described as surreal scenes, Chinese law enforcement utilized drones with loud speakers, developed for it by companies such as MicroMultiCopter, to break up illegal public gatherings.

And while such companies contributed to enforcing and ensuring human immobility, other companies have been simultaneously doing their part to make up for it.

COVID-19 has left a number of job shortages due to staff illness or death, resulting in human resources being overwhelmed and overstretched. Some tasks are currently deemed too risky in the current context, so robots and drones have been mobilized to fill the gaps. For example, CloudMinds, a Beijing-based tech start-up that provides cloud-based systems for robots, has sent a variety of its robots to a hospital in Wuhan to detect fevers, disinfect rooms, transport supplies and food, and even entertain patients, in an effort to minimize the risk of cross-infection and to make up for staff shortages. Similarly, companies like XAG Technology have used their drones to spray disinfectants in public spaces. Others still have used drones to make medical and commercial deliveries.

Though many of these new technologies are being employed for these tasks for the first time, they have already been praised for their high efficiency. But these new technologies will inevitably also raise more concerns and anxieties about the future. The critical question is will they continue to perform those roles after the crisis is over, this time taking the place of many workers indefinitely?

Crises have a way of expediting certain outcomes and futures. Many of us have long expected a world where robots increasingly take over the roles of humans. While this had to an extent happened before the COVID-19 crisis, will this crisis expedite the replacement of human workers with artificial intelligence, robots and other technologies?

In other words, have we just witnessed a large-scale audition for some version of that future in China - and elsewhere ? After all, if this crisis has taught us anything, it is that what happens in China can have a significant impact across the world.

About the author: Sharifah Muhammad Talib Alhinai is an MSc Migration Studies candidate at the University of Oxford.