The annual Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) global health conference and exhibition supposed to take place between today and 13 March is canceled in view of the ongoing Covid-19 situation. The novel coronavirus, first appeared in Wuhan, China at the turn of the year had infected more than 95,000 people worldwide as of last week. At the moment, the World Health Organization (WHO) is still considering if this should be refined as a global pandemic because there’s insufficient evidence to indicate if sustained local transmission has taken place outside of China.

An object of anti-surveillance

AIMed had covered earlier, how artificial intelligence (AI) may maximize outreach effort related to a viral outbreak, help in tracing back to the source and forecast when the next one is going to take place. Bluedot, a global health monitoring platform based in Canada said its algorithm was able to give clients advance warning of a possible Covid-19 outbreak as early as 31 December while the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and WHO only released words of caution to the public on 6 and 9 January respectively.

Again, not all facets of AI face an equal success. Some technology-driven healthcare companies had boost their medical chatbots to screen users and advise them on appropriate actions. They regard themselves as the first line of defence but because symptoms present in Covid-19 are also present in flu, it can be challenging for AI to truly distinguish if a person is affected by coronavirus or medical conditions.

Besides, the CDC had also issued a guide on how to evaluate and report patients who may be suspected of an infection. Since anyone is able to access themselves based on these guidelines, the necessity of a medical chatbots in this case becomes questionable. Similarly, facial recognition was also placed under scrutiny. Some residents in China, who are constantly wearing face masks as a precaution practice have difficulties unlocking their phones or other devices that rely on face ID.

A San Francisco based artist – Baskin, realized it and began producing masks that are printed with faces, to “protect people from viral epidemics while still being able to unlock your phone”. Her attempt was an instant success but it also tells a little more at the same time. Faces printed on these masks were generated by AI; they are not real, neither were they the faces of the users. Since the Chinese government has employed facial recognition to keep track of its citizens’ movements, the mask is now an object of anti-surveillance.

A repercussion of helplessness

According to Baskin, her masks may protect one’s biometric information via deception. The fact that human is able to recognize their friends even if they have such face mask on while machines can’t means there is a significant flaw in facial recognition technology itself. Some experts believe this is what happened when creators think that the technology is invincible but the rest of the public regard it as a threat and try to dilute it in their own ways, without realizing such technology may probably has the most adverse effect on the minorities.

AIMed talked about how emotion AI research had received a bad name due to over-commercialization of affective computing in determining whether one should be hired or if they have been lying inside courtrooms, even though the technology has yet to receive enough peer-reviewed and validation evidence that it can accurately work. Some believe this is a repercussion of helplessness; individuals are constantly being watched and yet they can’t do anything about it. This itself, is a more realistic portrayal of surveillance and reason behind why facial recognition is being joked at.

Baskin is tapping onto it and launched a project entitled “entirely as this sort of dystopian joke”. Her aim is not to promote face masks but to raise the issue of transparency around who has the right to decide and use facial recognition as a form of surveillance. As one of the Aesop Fable stories “The Fox and the Mask” goes, “it is the mind, not outward form, that is most important”. We should not just focused on what technology is being used during this Covid-19 epidemics but also figure out the purpose behind and why they were implemented in the first place.

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Author Bio

Hazel Tang A science writer with data background and an interest in the current affair, culture, and arts; a no-med from an (almost) all-med family. Follow on Twitter.