4IR plays a critical role in global efforts to address COVID-19

It’s hard to believe that there isn’t an individual, business or industry that hasn’t been affected by the outbreak of COVID-19. In a matter of months (for some, a matter of weeks), all of our lives have been impacted in truly unprecedented ways. COVID-19 has brought with it repercussions no one could have anticipated: countries in lockdown and the near grinding to a halt of international travel. Perhaps for the first time in living memory, the whole world is united by a shared experience.

We have all had to adapt quickly to the constantly evolving status quo – quicker than any of us imagined. Overnight, we have had to reconsider how we work, how we educate our children, how we interact with others, and how we ensure our bodies and environments are healthy and hygienic. Navigating this seismic shift has resulted in an almost unthinking and deepening dependency on the technology that has come to define 4IR.

As self-isolation and social distancing become critical measures in controlling the pandemic, businesses that have been averse to employees working from home have had to do an abrupt about-turn. Remote working, rather than being reserved for a select few, has quickly become standard practice and companies have introduced digital tools and solutions as a matter of urgency. Schools and universities that have the capacity and the means are teaching their learners and students online. More than ever before, the Internet has become a lifeline we all need to stay connected to the world.

But 4IR is also being used in more essential ways on the pandemic’s frontlines.

“The use of AI in dealing with the virus,” says UJ Vice-Chancellor Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, “has ranged from robotic cleaners spraying disinfectant at segregated wards, to AI voice assistants calling people to advise on home quarantine protocols. AI-powered infrared sensors that detect body temperatures have also been used to assess the health of commuters.”

Drones are being used in China to deliver medicines and quarantine materials while reducing contact between people, and a 3D printer was used in Brescia, Italy, to produce a Venturi valve for an intensive-care device that couldn’t be delivered through traditional channels. Smartphones are also being used to track the movements of infected people, and to trace the people with whom they might have come into contact.

Data analytics and predictive model systems have proven essential in understanding how the disease is spreading and, as far as possible, pre-empting treatment measures that might be required.

We are living in remarkable times, but fortunately we are facing this crisis with remarkable tools. As the situation progresses, the innovation and creativity that developed these tools in the first places is only going to become more and more essential.

“In the 4IR era, we need to refine problem-solving skills, deepen computational abilities, engage in multi-disciplinary thinking, think systematically and master the social world,” Professor Marwala adds. “Universities, of course, play a critical role in this space as they strive to nurture the world’s future pandemic-solving scientists.”