Wednesday, September 30, 2020
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The contact tracing AI

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As the world contemplates a ‘new’ normal as nations around the world ease their lockdowns and allow people outdoors more than before, much of the world is pinning its hopes on the laborious ‘contact tracing’ process that could make identifying potential exposure more efficient. Enter the smartphone: New kinds of apps have emerged that could automate this contact tracing process by tracing people’s movements to find people who they might infect and possibly inform those people as early as possible.

As many as 60 countries have already followed suit after the first contact tracing app was developed in Singapore in March 2020. No two ways about the fact that these apps, can theoretically, make the administration’s containment process much efficient. Apple and Google recently even came together to develop an API that will allow the apps to use their OS for this purpose. But these apps are essentially based on data collation from GPS and Bluetooth on smartphones. The GPS allows collecting information about the geographic movement of people and the Bluetooth helps to keep a record of all the people who come in proximity to each other.

If any of the users has developed symptoms and notifies the app about it, other people to whom the person has come into close proximity to in the past will be informed so that they can self-isolate. The theory is that such immediate identification and isolation of individuals could help control the spread and flatten the curve of the epidemic.

But such a suave system comes with its own set of challenges and limitations.

The success of these apps fundamentally depends on the quality and quantity of the data they use. But many a times, especially in poor countries, not all people are aware about it, or have a smartphone. And, so essentially data about all these people is not being collected which creates distortions and errors in the contact tracing process. These people are the missing threads who will not be recognised even though others around them are active users of these apps.

The concerns about potential privacy infringement by such apps have already arisen. These apps essentially give governments access to seamless information about its location, and movements of millions of people. And the possibility of such data falling into the hands of malicious hackers could expose people to cybercrime.

In light of the problems, researchers and developers have been racing to design protocols that can gain widespread adoption and public trust. Some of these measures include the TraceTogether team in Singapore, the PACT group by MIT and DP-3T who are trying to address the privacy-minded protocols.

The future and success keeps unfolding for the numerous contact tracing applications being developed around the world and though there may be more glitches and weaknesses in the apps presently, the scientific community and governments alike hope that greater sophistication in this technology will bring out its benefits that can outweigh its costs.

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