COVID-19 is deadly serious. This respiratory disease is triggered by a virus from the family of coronaviruses, which was identified in the 1960s but had never made such an assault on humanity. The virus prevents its victims from breathing normally, making them gasp for air. Fever, cough, a sore throat and a feeling of overwhelming fatigue and helplessness follow. Innocuous symptoms like loss of smell and taste, to uncontrollable vomiting and diarrhoea, have added to the bandwagon of symptomology. Lucky ones recover within a few days; some show only mild or moderately severe symptoms. But some patients are not that lucky. Bulldozing its way through the body, it may lead to rapid death. No one is immune. While the elderly and those with underlying health conditions are more at risk, COVID-19 has taken the lives of people of all ages, some in seemingly good health. To worsen the situation, the virus is constantly mutating, the newly discovered G614 variant found more infective than the previous D614. The disease has literally brought our world to its knees.
As Albert Einstein once famously said, “Adversity introduces a man to himself” – Until you have faced adversity, you don’t know what your actions, reactions and behaviour will be to any given situation or circumstance. Coronavirus, despite all the challenges and vicissitudes it has created for mankind, has given the technology a quantum leap forward! Especially in the use of computers, in the fight against the disease.
Japan’s supercomputer Fugaku, developed by Riken Scientific Research Centre, and corporate conglomerate Fujitsu, to fight the coronavirus has been named the fastest in the world. It has topped all three prestigious listings – HPCG, HPL – AI and Graph 500, “for the first time in history as a single machine simultaneously”, according to Satoshi Matsuoka, the director of Riken. This supercomputer is 2.8times faster than the US developed Summit supercomputer and now secures numero uno position in the Top 500. Fugaku, which means Mount Fuji in Japanese, has been helping in a big way in the fight against the pandemic. It has been running research simulations on how virus-laden droplets would spread in office spaces with partitions, or inside packed trains with windows kept open, and such as difficult computations. Supercomputers are nearly 1000 times faster than normal computers and the best in the league can literally solve myriads of complex equations in seconds. The computer is expected to be deployed in full-time operations in April 2021, and its cutting edge technology is already being geared up to simulate nuclear blasts for modelling climate systems and biotechnology research; and will play a key role in putting together AI, big data and Internet of Things (IoT). Fugaku’s capabilities and operations are very close to the challenge thrown by the Google quantum computer and the fight between ‘bits’ and ‘qubits’ has escalated – fast-forwarding major applications and leapfrogging many scientific advancements.
On a similar track, a team from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), in collaboration with Ava Robotics and Greater Boston Food Bank, has designed a new robotic system that powerfully disinfects surfaces and neutralises aerosolised forms of the coronavirus. It uses a UV-C light fixture, which has an array of short wavelength ultraviolet light to kill microorganisms and disrupt their DNA, delivering germicidal irradiation. It is capable of mapping the spaces in the warehouse and navigating between different areas and providing the desired dose of UV-C at different stations. Moving at a speed of 0.22 miles per hour, the robot can disinfect a 4,000- square-foot warehouse in just half an hour or thereabouts, and that too autonomously! No teleoperation needed, and definitely no human being ever needs to actually go in and sanitise those nooks and corners where the virus could well be hiding. This experimental robot system has solved many algorithmic challenges and can be used for autonomous disinfection of schools, dorms, aeroplanes, and grocery stores.
Not to be left behind in the race of innovations, Sheba Medical Centre in Israel and broadband provider Cox Communications Inc. are using Augmented Reality (AR) in the fight versus the pandemic. They have created HoloLens headsets to train physicians, biomedical engineers and nurses on how to operate ventilators by creating a hologram-like rendering of a ventilator superimposed on the real world view. The headset has built-in instructions to operate the physical ventilator; and a two- way communication with doctors without needing for them to be present physically in the hospital but with the capability to see the digital images floating in a real-world room! Similarly, Help Lightning Inc., an Alabama based technology company is helping customers install internet services, modems or even WiFi through virtual calls wherein a technician helps them with the process by seeing through the built-in camera of the phone, and guiding by drawing circles or arrows around a particular object or cable. Israeli companies are going even further. Israeli startup Sonovia hopes to arm healthcare systems and others with face masks made from their anti-pathogen, anti-bacterial fabric that relies on metal-oxide nanoparticles. Such fabulous applications of scientific knowledge!
IBM, in collaboration with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the U.S. Department of Energy and many others, is helping launch the COVID-19 High-Performance Computing Consortium, which will bring forth an unprecedented amount of computing power – 16 systems with more than 330 petaflops, 775,000 CPU cores, 34,000 GPUs, and counting – to help researchers everywhere better understand COVID-19, its treatments and potential cures. IBM’s famous Summit, once the most powerful supercomputer on the planet, has already enabled researchers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Tennessee to screen 8,000 compounds to find those that are most likely to bind to the main “spike” protein of the coronavirus, rendering it unable to infect host cells. They were able to recommend the 77 promising small-molecule drug compounds that could now be experimentally tested. This is the power of accelerating discovery through computation.
Closer home, In India, we have witnessed an unprecedented use of robots for surveillance and disinfection in containment zones during the Lockdown period. Robots have been used to provide basic protective equipment to inbound travellers at the airports and room service to quarantined passengers, reducing human contact and disease transmission. Doctors who were huge proponents of ‘human touch necessary for healing’ have been forced to shift to teleconsultations. Most big private hospitals have come out with reach-out programmes to monitor the progress of asymptomatic and mildly symptomatic COVID patients at home using the robots and remote monitoring devices. These innovative technology-driven measures will definitely help in making progress in other spheres. It seems technology has been fast-forwarded! Perhaps as William Shakespeare said in As You Like It,
“Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything”
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