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  • Hervé Mwamba

How robots can help South Africa get back to "normal"​

We are living in a world where uncertainty has become the new normal, where Zoom calls have taken the place of the board room, and where baking has become one of the most popular new hobbies, right after TikTok. And the list goes on and on. For most of us, uncertainty is daunting and uncomfortable, understandably so. As the days and months pass, the prospect of a lockdown-Christmas is not a far-fetched thought.

We have all heard the my fellow South African addresses. We are all aware of the regulations, whether we agree with them or not, the stats, and the bans. Our hearts even go out to those that have lost loved ones. Regardless of the severity to which different people are suffering from COVID-19, we can all agree that solutions are needed. Good ones. Although it may tempt us to resign ourselves to the idea that the future does not look good, we must remember that innovation and opportunity thrive amid crisis. I am not claiming to give a definite solution, but I am a strong believer in thinking outside of the box and motivating others to do so. If anything, I am writing this to make you aware of some solutions that have kinda been working for others. It’s a good start.

To avoid being unoriginal (I mean this without any cynicism or sarcasm) and talking about economic relief and policy, two topics in which I lack both knowledge and experience, let me bring your attention to something that resonates more with me: technology. Let’s talk about how and why technology can help us get back to “normal”. By the way, if there was ever a stereotype for a mechatronic engineer it would be a guy writing an article about technology and its importance. Now enough about me, let me introduce you to 3 technologies that will have a lot of positive impacts, in my opinion.

1. UV-C Robots

“What is UV-C?” you ask, let’s go into some basic physics. Ultraviolet light (UV) is a component of the electromagnetic spectrum that falls in the region between visible light and X-Rays. More specifically, UV-C light falls in the 200nm to 280nm range and is used for disinfection and sensing. Using the unchanging and predictable behaviour of light and combining it with robotics gives you the UV-C robot. These robots have been around for a while but the COVID-19 pandemic has made them very relevant and popular (as many as 60 countries have been using them throughout the pandemic). And the good news is that the operating principle is straightforward. First, the robot is programmed to define its path. The robot starts moving and emitting UV-C light onto surfaces within reach and 10 minutes later you end up with an average-sized room disinfected by as much as 99%.

2. UV-C Masks

“More UV-C?”, you ask. Yes, and by now you’re an expert at UV-C so we don’t have to go through the physics again. So it sounds pretty simple, right? A face mask that uses some sort of UV-C mechanism. Sure enough, that’s exactly it. Despite the controversy and inconsistency of the use and effectiveness of masks, they have become a crucial part of protecting others from ourselves and we can expect mask-wearing to stay with us in the foreseeable future. The UV-C mask is an electronic battery-powered device that incorporates a UV-C filtering mechanism. As you inhale contaminated air, the filter disinfects it (by as high as 99% as we saw with the UV-C robot) and as you exhale potentially contaminated air and droplets, the filter performs the same function as with the inhalation step. You breathe in clean air, you breathe out clean air. Unlike the previous technology, this exciting new one has not yet been rolled out to the market on large scale. However, the future of UV-C masks looks exciting and I definitely wouldn’t mind getting myself one.

3. Artificial Intelligence

Nowadays a tech piece isn’t complete without mentioning AI. This isn’t just a coincidence, AI is revolutionizing how information is processed and interpreted, from the fintech sector to ubiquitous applications like Netflix and the likes. I am not here to defend or debunk the misconceptions that are associated with AI. What I will say, though, is that as African innovators and consumers we need to embrace this technology to avoid being left even further behind. Currently, there are no specific AI products (or at least that I know of) available to the general public regarding COVID-19. However, a recent study from India proposes 7 key areas of application of AI during the pandemic. These areas are quite general and can be applied in the South African context. For the sake of brevity, I will only mention the areas without discussing them. You will probably note that some of these areas are already being implemented in some way or another, while others are not as popular. The areas are as follows: 1. early detection and diagnosis of the infection, 2. monitoring of treatment, 3. contact tracing of individuals, 4. prediction and projection of cases and mortality, 5. development of drugs and vaccines, 6. reducing the workload of healthcare workers, and 7. prevention of further infection.

In the spirit of South African skepticism, I know what you're thinking: "But won’t it too expensive, is it even worth it, don’t we have bigger issues?" You're right, innovative technology is often very expensive. For example, UV-C robots have a hefty price-tag: anything from $30 000 to $70 000, depending on the manufacturer. Similarly, we can expect UV-C masks to be far more expensive than cloth masks. And also some people would have power issues regarding charging the battery. And as for the use of AI, there will inevitably be infrastructure issues like connectivity. Yes, all these issues are valid and someone needs to solve them. However, if our limitation is that "it's too expensive", perhaps this could be an opportunity for South African tech-companies to create solutions that make sense within our economic context.

Lately the phrase "the cost of re-opening the economy" has become quite popular. Could this be it? Just buy a bunch of these robots, buy a bunch of electronic masks and create some AI tools and, voila, back to normal life? Of course not! What we need to accept is that COVID-19 is here and it will be here for a while (as we wait for a vaccine and effective and reliable therapeutics). Our focus and our thinking then become a matter of investing in long-term solutions. And then what? Maybe we can re-open our schools? Maybe more businesses can go back to work? Maybe we can feel safe to get out of our homes and gather in churches and attend other events like sports and concerts. Don't get me wrong, I am not saying that we should throw away our masks and forget about social distancing. I’m just saying, life must and will go on. How we think about a post-pandemic world is a crucial challenge that we face during this storm. As I said previously, innovation and opportunity thrive in a crisis. Perhaps this presents an opportunity for politics and policy to merge with science and engineering. The former being an economic enabler for market-access and the latter being at the forefront of product development. There is much at stake if the wrong solutions are presented, but there is, even more, to lose when nothing is done. We have the brains, we have the resources, let’s be hopeful and give it an honest effort!


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