The fear of the unknown about COVID-19 is a challenge that even technology is failing to conquer, despite many advances in social-distancing and medical technologies.
I’ve always been a technophile and have always embraced new technology. From my first Sinclair ZX80, with its tape deck to load programs and games and its thermal printer, to the latest iPhone 12, I like to understand what new gadgets are capable of. And since I began writing about technology in the mid-1980s, I’ve also sought to understand how technology can impact and enhance real-life environments.
When we recently replaced our family car with a new Honda, I was fascinated with the ADAS systems, like lane-keep assist and active braking, that came as standard. I was like a kid in a sweet shop trying everything out. I searched all around the car, inside and outside, to figure out where all the sensors and cameras were. I can report that the lane-keep–assist feature is pretty effective – though I dare not take my hands off the wheel too long, for fear of the software errors I wrote about last year. Even the driver-monitoring system (DMS) that comes as standard seems quite impressive – though probably oversensitive at times.
While we’ve got all this helpful technology all around us, there is one area of concern for me: I’m wondering about how much technology is really helping us in the fight against Covid-19. While a handful of countries have used technology effectively to keep the spread in check and to keep case numbers and deaths down, I think the fear of the unknown about the virus in most countries is a challenge that even technology is failing to conquer, despite many advances in social-distancing technologies and medical advances in everything from robot nurses to Bluetooth wireless stethoscopes.
When the virus hit our household during Christmastime, I thought I was in possession of the gadgets needed to keep on top of things so that if our conditions deteriorated, we would be able to take swift action. After all, everything I had read so far suggested you needed to watch for fever and make sure your oxygen levels were stable. If those were not maintained within normal ranges, it was a sign that you’d end up as one of the statistics in the hospital.
In the internet-of-things age, we might call this monitoring “predictive maintenance” – in other words, taking a specific corrective action when a data trend doesn’t look right. In the health-care world, remote monitoring of patient data is possible.
So, armed with the iHealth non-contact thermometer I purchased last summer (which visually looks like it might have come from the Apple stable) plus a decent oximeter, I thought we were well-equipped to monitor our fevers and oxygen levels. Being armed with the right tools and a little knowledge brought out the medical practitioner and the data scientist in me – albeit an amateur one, with no qualifications aside from an engineering degree.
Our routine of self-monitoring multiple times a day ensured that we could spot any trends. It also helped us call out to emergency services a couple of times when something wasn’t improving. My biggest fear for both of us was that we’d be admitted to the hospital and then end up in one of those body bags that await the worst-affected victims of the virus, as the news media around the world constantly remind us.
With this fear as the driving factor in my mind, my aim was always to identify something before the virus got a chance to make us worse. Even when my oxygen level was low and I was advised to be taken to the hospital emergency unit by the clinicians in the call center, I was determined to figure out a way of avoiding a hospital visit. A desperate call to a doctor friend solved that momentary dilemma; he told me that if I tried walking up and down the stairs and my oxygen level came back up, then I could possibly avoid going to the hospital for oxygen. So I made the attempt to force myself out of bed and make a couple of rounds on the stairs. Thankfully, the oximeter reading showed a very slight improvement, so I decided that I was probably OK to continue recovery at home.
Being incapacitated for nearly 10 days didn’t stop my engineering training to understand how technology could be used to conquer the virus. My first thought was about the official test-and-trace app.
How effective was it in policing those who had the virus? If I ventured out (although I was in no condition to get up from my bed), would the app alert the authorities? Remember the infamous “2319” child-detection alert in “Monsters, Inc.”? Maybe the Bluetooth-based test-and-trace app would trigger something similar around the 10-meter vicinity of the violator.
Sadly, that is not the case. Because we as a society are so protective of our privacy — despite being willing to display all our personal data on social media for any advertiser to mine — no identifiable data is transmitted by the app. That’s a good thing, I guess. But maybe anonymized tokens could at least be used to discourage people from violating isolation rules. That would surely stop the spread, given that the U.K. has been talking about a 70% more transmissible mutation of the virus.
The U.K. test-and-trace app simply enables the smartphone to generate an anonymous token once a day and a second one that changes every 15 minutes. Anyone else using the app within the distance range of your Bluetooth signal exchanges the anonymous tokens and then stores the updated token (the one that changes every 15 minutes) for two weeks. If you test positive for Covid-19, you enter the test result code in your app. This way, all the phones that stored the anonymized tokens from your phone because you were in proximity over the last two weeks would then also be alerted to self-isolate.
Our period of self-isolation was effectively like a house arrest, on top of the general lockdown we’d already been living under. That positive Covid-19 test added a layer of complexity to living. Our date for “release” was Dec. 28. The date you’re given assumes that you all come out well on the other side of the isolation period and recover. But as with many parameters in this unknown territory of the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s not that simple. In our case, it took a few more days than the target date, but recover we did, eventually.
Technology in itself is really useful in dealing with modern life challenges. But in the case of Covid-19, society still hasn’t gained enough knowledge to deal with it effectively. That lack of knowledge means you can use technology only to the extent that you can measure what you know. But there is still too much unknown for technology to be completely effective.
Let’s hope that 2021 brings us more than just the vaccine. We need to understand how to deal with the virus better, too, if we happen to catch it. And then we can overcome the fear of that unknown.
This article was originally published on EE Times Europe.Nitin Dahad is a correspondent for EE Times, EE Times Europe and also Editor-in-Chief of embedded.com. With 35 years in the electronics industry, he's had many different roles: from engineer to journalist, and from entrepreneur to startup mentor and government advisor. He was part of the startup team that launched 32-bit microprocessor company ARC International in the US in the late 1990s and took it public, and co-founder of The Chilli, which influenced much of the tech startup scene in the early 2000s. He's also worked with many of the big names - including National Semiconductor, GEC Plessey Semiconductors, Dialog Semiconductor and Marconi Instruments.