A cafe sign in Ho Chi Minh City exhorts customers to wear masks. (VOA News)
A cafe sign in Ho Chi Minh City exhorts customers to wear masks. (VOA News)

An idea is percolating in Vietnam as it fights COVID-19: “send in the robots.”  

The pandemic has brought artificial intelligence (AI) more of a spotlight as nations around the world look for uses, from combing data for clues to predict an outbreak, to robot waiters that reduce human contact. In Vietnam, which has reported remarkably low infection and death figures, the possible uses are still being tested. They include chatbots to dispense information, face recognition technology, predictive mapping, and software to combat rumors about the disease.  

For instance, FPT Corp., the nation’s biggest telecommunications and software company, introduced a web application that uses automation to assess COVID-19 risk. How it works: Vietnamese go to the Corona Check website and enter data on where they have been recently. The app then cross references that with data on the location, timing, and quantity of cases nationwide to calculate the odds someone has come into contact with the coronavirus.  

“Our AI system is continuously updating data to improve itself,” Tran Hoang Giang, the FPT Software vice president, said. “Currently it could predict the probability of coronavirus infection with 90% accuracy. But it’ll get even better as more people submit self-assessments on the web.” 

The process is helped in part by the fact that Vietnam, which has had 841 COVID-19 cases this year, publishes uniquely detailed, anonymized data on patients’ movements so that others can check if they went somewhere at the same time as an infected person. For instance, one record showed the times that a patient had gone to a mall, a cafe, and a market. 

Warning system 

The work on machine learning sends a good message, according to FPT chairman Truong Gia Binh.   

“Not only tech enthusiasts in developed countries but also young, talented Vietnamese have the opportunity to exchange knowledge and research about AI,” he said. 

Vietnam has also joined in on a popular AI strategy globally to map out many data points that might predict where the next cluster of COVID-19 cases will occur. The data points can number in the dozens and may not seem directly related, such as weather, density in a shopping center, or popular Google searches. However, taken together, the right data can correlate with disease outbreaks and serve as a warning system that detects risks before humans do.  

In addition to models that assess the threat of a disease, Vietnam has a COVID-19 map that is paired with news articles, which are updated through automation software to dispel misinformation. The Southeast Asian nation has taken a hard line against pandemic rumors, which could prove deadly and in other nations have encouraged unscientific home remedies. 

Telemedicine  

Beyond machine learning, COVID-19 is also spurring more interest in another emerging technology called telemedicine. For instance, the company Doctor Anywhere now has physicians assessing Vietnamese patients for signs of the disease via video consultations, which are also conducted in Thailand and Singapore.  

All of this is part of Industry 4.0, a term for the latest advancements that are supposed to help economies move to the next stage of development. Vietnam expects these advances to help it recover from the pandemic, too. 

“AI is considered a core technology for Industry 4.0 that has implications for post COVID-19 healing,” Chu Ngoc Anh, the Minister of Science and Technology in Vietnam, said. 

His government is working with Australia, which said last week it donated 650,000 Australian dollars “to find new ways to use AI as Vietnam recovers from COVID-19.” 

The money will fund things like a contest in which programmers submit competing ideas to put machine learning to use. 

“In the face of the global pandemic, it [innovation] has become more important than ever,” Robyn Mudie, the Australian Ambassador to Vietnam, said.  

She added: “This AI initiative is a great example of how new technology can be adapted quickly to respond to Vietnam’s emerging needs.” 

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