The country’s tech giants have responded to the outbreak by deploying autonomous vehicles to bring supplies to medical workers, fitting drones with thermal cameras to improve detection of the virus and lending their computing power to help develop a vaccine.
But Beijing has made clear that fighting the virus is a national priority that requires collective action.
He added that China should ramp up clinical research for vaccines and antiviral drugs, as well as expand online shopping options for the tens of millions of people who are staying indoors to prevent the disease’s spread.
The Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology on Thursday called on the tech sector for help, suggesting that robots, temperature screening machines and devices that can help reduce human contact should be deployed.
China’s technological rise
As China now fights the coronavirus, technology won’t be the “dominating factor” that stops the outbreak, according to Danny Mu, a Beijing-based analyst of emerging technologies at Forrester.
But he said the sector has its uses, including offering digital services like food delivery and mobile payments that help people “better face the epidemic.”
Researching cures and eliminating human contact
And Didi, China’s biggest ride-hailing provider, has teamed up with medical and aid organizations to allow workers who need to perform tasks related to data analysis, online simulation or logistical support to use Didi’s servers for free.
Others are deploying robots to eliminate human-to-human contact.
“Yes, you can call them gimmicks,” said Eliam Huang, an analyst at Coresight Research. “But Chinese tech companies can be very responsive and versatile.”
The food delivery giant Meituan Dianping, for example, introduced robots last week in some of its partners’ restaurants in Beijing that help bring food from kitchens to delivery workers, and to customers waiting for takeout orders. Meituan wants to expand the program to other cities if it’s successful.
The bots, which look and run much like pint-sized vehicles, have been delivering packages to a hospital that primarily treats coronavirus patients. The route is relatively short — about 600 meters to the hospital — but cutting humans out of the equation has helped protect customers and employees, said Qi Kong, head of autonomous driving at JD Logistics.
“As we learned of the situation in Wuhan, we started to pivot our resources there,” Qi told CNN Business. “Time has been really tight. It only took us four days to make sure our algorithm was ready to go, from simulation to practice.”
Drones have also been put to use during the outbreak.
The technology allows authorities to scan through large crowds and spot if someone’s in need of medical attention, according to MicroMultiCopter, a drone startup based in Shenzhen that has dispatched about 100 of the devices across the country. They’ve also sent nearly 200 employees to command centers where they can monitor what the drones are seeing in real time.
“The company has been working overtime,” a spokesperson told CNN Business. “This is the best test of our drone system. It is also the best showcase to the world.”
China’s tech sector has long benefited from “top-down” support from Beijing, said Huang, the Coresight Research analyst. The central government allocated 3.9% of the national budget to science and technology last year, a 14% increase over the year before.
“This shows the government highly values the development of technology, and its dedication to push technology innovation forward,” she said.
“Authorities’ support helps everything happen faster,” she added. “However, there is little ethical resistance, less ethical review in China.”