On using robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) to combat the spread of Covid-19

Interview with Anis Sahbani, Director-General, Enova Robotics (Tunisia)
A Tunisian police robot

AFP/ FETHI BELAID  -   A Tunisian police robot patrols the centre of the capital, Tunisia, as a means of imposing a national shutdown to combat the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic

In what ways can robotics and AI help overcome the challenges posed by Covid-19?

Robotics and AI play an intermediary role between humans and specific tasks, and also provide an autonomous entity to aid in decision-making. With the outbreak of Covid-19, social-distancing measures have been implemented around the world. This principle is at odds with the intrinsic definition of societies and the mechanisms or dogmas that define them. In this particular context, robotics has emerged as a solution to social distancing. Robots can play an intermediary role, safeguarding the person from possible contamination. In Tunisia, the first deployment of robots was done in the security field, allowing security personnel to maintain order and provide confinement instructions without actually coming into contact with the populace.

We will also see robotics implemented in the Tunisian health care sector. A growing number of hospitals and nursing homes have expressed interest in using telepresence robots to provide family members the opportunity to speak with patients and the elderly via video call due to lockdowns and no-visitor policies at these facilities. In some cases, this is the only way for patients who may be at the end of their lives to see their loved ones. Additionally, robotics and AI are going to be used to carry out patient screenings at the entrance of hospitals. A chatbot will be used to ask patients questions and a thermal camera will measure their temperature, carrying out an effective Covid-19 assessment.  

Robot patrulla - usado para comprobar las temperaturas
PHOTO/AFP - Patrol robot - used to check temperatures, identities and disinfect people - checking the temperature of a visitor in a hospital in Shenyang (China)

How far can robotics go in the fight against Covid-19 in Tunisia?

The scope of the use of robotics to fight Covid-19 is very large. Robots will soon be deployed to disinfect streets and operation rooms. In Tunisia, we will be confronted by two obstacles related to deployment of this type of technology. The first obstacle has to do with the number of existing robots in the country and the possibility of converting them to fight the virus. Second, we have seen the general acceptance of this technology by the administration and the population, and the rate the deployment of technologies based on AI has multiplied by 10 since the outbreak. Our administration, traditionally reluctant to change, has made a major leap towards the use of this technology during this period of crisis.

Un robot de limpieza de suelos
PHOTO/AP - A floor cleaning robot, equipped with a UVC device, at the rear, cleans the floor in the entrance area of the ground building at the Greater Pittsburgh International Airport on Thursday, May 7, 2020

To what extent has the adoption of robotics during the pandemic changed local perceptions?

As a result of the pandemic and, in particular, the closing of the borders and the supply-chain problems incurred, decision-makers have discovered that they can rely on local skills. Many did not previously believe that we had the capacity and the capabilities to produce high-level technology locally. The release of this technology has created a sense of pride and belonging, but I also hope that it has raised questions about development strategies that will be adopted after Covid-19. It is true that some of the technologies that have been unveiled during this period are ephemeral and will disappear after this crisis is over; however, many others will remain in place and will be developed on a large scale.

Un paciente se somete a un control de temperatura
AFP/MANJUNATH KIRAN - A patient undergoes temperature monitoring with 'Mitra', a robot equipped with a thermal camera to prevent the spread of coronavirus, at Bangalore's Fortis Hospital on May 2, 2020

What challenges has the sector traditionally faced, and what changes could the current situation bring about?

As with every type of technology, robotics has faced a classical resistance due to the fact that it imposes changes to habits and traditions. This generally results in lengthy adoption processes and prolonged contract negotiations. With Covid-19, the time to reach consensus and for deployment has been considerably reduced. Decision-makers are acting with urgency and are ready to try new solutions to combat the spread. Today the door is half-open; we have to transform the trial period into proposals once this pandemic is over.

Un robot de desinfección roBOT (XDBOT)
AFP PHOTO / NTU SINGAPUR - A roBOT disinfection robot (XDBOT), a semi-autonomous robot, while disinfecting a table in a dining area at NTUsg's Smart Campus in Singapore

Which sectors are in urgent need of robotics and AI technologies? 

In Tunisia and in other countries, there are strategic choices to make: will the country be a consumer or producer of technologies? Robotics and AI have demonstrated their utility during times of crisis. Tunisia bases its development mostly on traditional industry. This sector needs to be modernised and to shift towards Industry 4.0, and robotics is the way to get there. In the security sector, we are importing robots that could be produced locally. During the Covid-19 crisis, manufacturers responded to the question “Can we produce?’’; now decision-makers are left to answer the question “Do we want to produce?’’.