Let’s be honest, there are some things that machines are better at than humans, and that’s organizing important but boring data. In a nutshell, organizing important but boring information is exactly what IoT, or the Internet of Things, does. And it does it with a much lower error margin.

Automated solutions to every-day problems are no small thing, however, especially when we consider the challenges we have been faced with when trying to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

The IoT is a scalable and automated solution that is currently being used in the industries of automated manufacturing and electronics. IoT has seen a huge amount of growth in recent years. This growth in particular in areas with large manufacturing industries, such as China and Japan. 

The basic idea of IoT is that machines are able to detect errors and needs, send the message to the correct place, and then have the error expediently resolved. Essentially, it is a smart system of automation, that relies on internet connectivity. 

What can IoT do that humans can’t?

IoT consists of several primary functional components: 

  • Data collection
  • Information transfer
  • Analytics
  • Data storage

The IoT relies on the steady collection of data through sensors installed to recognize specific problems or other things in its environment. Currently, sensors are installed on mobile phones, robots and even on health monitors.

The basic use of the data is to send error messages to the central cloud server for analytics. With this information, computors are able to tell if the machine needs maintenance AND what part of the machine needs maintenance. 

Unsurprisingly, China leads the way in IoT adoption followed by Japan. Some projections estimate that China plans to spend $254.6 billion in IoT by 2025.

The idea is that machines are better at predicting the precise failure of a given system than humans are. These errors are typically related to machine issues, but there have been cases where IoT is used for medical needs simply by regularly collecting data and aggregating it quickly. 

The ability to act efficiently to deal with a problem is central, especially in times of pandemics, where identifying areas and communities that have been infected is crucial. 

Responding to a Pandemic 

The way that the IoT works is through interconnected systems of data analytics and artificial intelligence. The constant connectivity makes early warning signs possible, which could be used to stop the spread of infectious diseases, such as the coronavirus, or COVID-19.

IoT is effective because there are many points of data collection which is then processed by computers, and in many cases, supercomputers.

If we have the relevant data collection in the time of a pandemic we could:

  • Quickly identify exactly how many people have symptoms
  • Identify where these people are located
  • Understand the demographics which are most affected by the infection

And most importantly, deliver focused medical attention to those in need, and prevent the spread of the virus to others. 

Case Example: Dengue Virus in Singapore (2013-2014)

The following example of the dengue virus in Singapore demonstrates how IoT was effective for tracing the origin of the outbreak with aggregated mobile phone data.

The study was executed by researchers at MIT. With mobile phone data, they were able to trace, with fine detail, the distances and period of the spread of the dengue virus. 

This information assisted epidemiologists in the search for patient zero, which is crucial for understanding how and where the disease was first communicated to humans. It was also helpful to identify all the people who were in contact with the infected person and in the geographical area.

A Solution to the Labour Shortage

IoT is not about replacing people, it is about filling a widening gap. With our current global population, we simply do not have enough medical professionals to effectively respond to the coronavirus crisis.

Because of the medical professional shortage, Canada is desperately calling on retired medical professionals and medical students to come to the country’s medical aid during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

An added concern is the safety of the medical professionals themselves. IoT has the potential to relive the medical staff. For example, IoT as been used to monitory in-home patients with chronic conditions such as diabetes and hypertension. While in hospitals biometric measurements, such as heartbeat and blood pressure from wireless instruments have reduced the burden of the staff. 

In the case of biometric measurements, with IoT, they can be done faster, more consistently and more effectively. This improves the potential treatment and understanding of patients’ medical needs. 

And in cases such as COVID-19, IoT could reduce the interaction with infected persons, which reduces the spread of the virus not only to others in the community but to the medical staff looking after them. 

Implementing IoT

It is difficult to say exactly what the best way to implement IoT to help monitor the health of people is. However, one example is the use of surveillance cameras. Rather than monitor peoples’ every move, in cases such as the coronavirus, sensors could be designed to detect the virus. 

Such tracking and identification technology could be used at borders and airports to prevent the unnecessary spread of infection; as well as the unnecessary quarantine of others. 

To work effectively in a medical crisis IoT systems need to be able to build up its infrastructure quickly so those analytics are run which connect the components of data collection. It is also necessary for the data to be processed and stored so that the system can scale and expand for disease tracking, 

This could potentially reduce the overall cost of collecting such important medical data, and help to administer preventive quarantine, and treatment for those infected.

IBM Super Computer, The Summit

An excellent example of the power of effective computational tools is IBM’s Summit. The Summit is a supercomputer that the U.S Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. 

The computer requires the space of two tennis courts and can perform 200 quadrillion calculations each second. That is roughly a million times more computing power than the average laptop.

Using the Summit, researchers are able to make “quick” work of processing 8000 drug compounds that may be able to treat COVID-19. Of these 8000 drug compounds, 77 were identified as being possible candidates to treat coronavirus.

While this does not mean we can expect a treatment immediately, it does mean that the research can be narrowed. With focused drug compounds will likely make the production of treatment more expedient.

An important comparison to make is that running these kinds of simulations usually takes several months. However, due to the computational power of the Summit, it was able to produce these results in about a month.

Emily Mullin describes the entomology of COVID-19 as the following:

“Coronaviruses get their name from the crownlike proteins on their surface, which allow the virus to bind to and infect human cells. The researchers used the Summit to pinpoint drugs capable of binding to these protein spikes in order to thwart the virus’ ability to get inside the body’s cells.”

With the simulations, the Tenessee research team can run a vast number of simulations. These simulations are useful as the data revealed that another virus, now known as SARS-CoV-2 (or SARS), is similar to the coronavirus in the way it affects the body. 

Supercomputers and IoT

How does it work so quickly?

Supercomputers use incredibly quick machine learning algorithms. Summit uses 4,608 nodes which is equivalent to the computing power of 4,608 laptops. It then distributes the computational load by parceling off the problem and assigning them different parts to individual nodes or computers. 

Afterward, the information is returned and the pieces are reconstituted with the solution to the problem. 

Using the aggregated information from IoT sensors, supercomputers such as the Summit could isolate many of the issues that epidemiologists are currently facing with the coronavirus. With more data, the results are much more accurate, which means that there is a smaller margin of error. Thus, authorities and medical professionals could act more swiftly and precisely. 

IoT expediates automated solutions to human needs by identifying errors and needs and responding to them, rather than waiting for a human to notice and report an issue. All in all, expect to see more IoT solutions for more problems in the very near future.

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