Coronavirus provides an opportunity for Chinese tech companies

The coronavirus crisis in China escalated, I began to notice glowing news reports about the latest technological innovation to fight the outbreak: contactless delivery.

McDonald’s, Starbucks, KFC, Pizza Hut and a string of Chinese delivery companies were trialling apparently cutting-edge technology. Intrigued by the buzz, I tried it. I logged on to Meituan, my Chinese food delivery app of choice, ordered “contactless delivery” dumplings and waited. Within an hour, my groundbreaking online shopping experience was complete: the courier left my dinner at the entrance to my apartment. The coronavirus outbreak is proving a marketing boon for Chinese tech companies with products they can connect to fighting the virus — however tenuous that connection may be. An industry body affiliated with China’s ministry of industry and information technology has identified a list of over 60 companies that claim to provide tech solutions to the coronavirus problem. Recommended Coronavirus China app downloads surge due to coronavirus outbreak Are you feeling anxious because of the virus? So am I. Never fear, emotion recognition is here. A company in Shanghai says it can assess your emotional state through a 60-second video analysis of your “skin, eyeballs, corners of your mouth, eyelids and bodily vibrations”. Once the emotion recognition discovers abnormal levels of aggression or stress, please seek the appropriate psychological help. If by some chance the emotion recognition test fails, there is always crowd recognition. Police across the country are using big data, provided by a company on the list called Beiyang, to identify individuals (who may or may not have coronavirus) in crowds. Beiyang claims its technology has led to a 22 per cent drop in calls to China’s emergency hotline, a 36 per cent drop in muggings and 40 per cent fewer burglaries. If you have been identified as a coronavirus patient through emotion and crowd recognition, then Yelink, a Shenzhen-based company, will provide you with all the technology — the internet of things, more big data, cloud computing — to effectively self-quarantine at home. Your temperature, heart beat and blood oxygen levels will be tracked through bluetooth thermometers and wristbands, which feed this data to the government’s “public health cloud” to be analysed. The company will even throw in a lock for your front door which will only unlock if the company’s smartphone app deems you healthy. Don’t try forcing the door open — the police will be alerted. While in quarantine, you can pass the time playing on your phone. Just do not post anything politically sensitive. If you do, UiBot, a smart robotics company, will find out as it conducts automatic keyword searches on WeChat, the messaging app that millions of Chinese use every day and which forms the bedrock of the country’s internet. These keyword searches have been so effective that China’s internet censors have blocked students across the country — currently stuck at home because of the virus — from taking online classes in politics, modern history and Chinese literature because of “sensitive” content — or, in the case of biology, “pornographic” content. In fairness to the industry body’s carefully curated coronavirus solutions list, it includes some surveillance tech which seems genuinely helpful: increased monitoring of the health of nursing care residents who may be overlooked as medical resources are redirected towards coping with the coronavirus outbreak; AI temperature checks for crowds; and digital platforms to more transparently co-ordinate the procurement and logistics of medical supplies. How much of this technology is here to stay when the coronavirus outbreak ends? It is likely that governments and businesses that have invested in upgrading their surveillance tech will not unwind it once the crisis is over. I’m going to bet that “contactless delivery” will not disappear either: those dumplings I order online will continue to be delivered straight to my doorstep.

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