Can Robots Save us from COVID-19?
As COVID-19 sweeps the globe like a tempest and the world eagerly seeks a protagonist to shape a happy ending, I wonder, can robots save us? To answer this question, let's look at the front lines to find out if AI and robots are truly helping us in this time of peril or whether humans, once again, must save the day.
Starting with the robots.
Robots are smart, capable of handling many jobs, impervious to viruses (at least the human kind) and, if you believe The Guardian, 50% of Americans believe robots will take over their lives. With all that compelling PR on their sides, robots must be able to snuff out this pandemic, right?
Turns out the answer is yes—robots are fighting coronavirus and making a difference.
3 Robot Wins in the fight against COVID-19
1. Fever Detecting Robots. Silicon Valley's Kogniz Health created cameras armed with AI-based multisensory technology to deploy in public areas, outside facilities or even onboard rolling robots. Their job is to scan crowds and identify anyone with a temperature to locate and isolate risk. “Companies want to keep their employees healthy and safe,” said Daniel Putterman, co-founder and co-CEO. “During a pandemic such as this one it is critical that organisations be able to quickly identify people who might be sick, and one way to do that is to detect fever." Similarly, just as you read this article, robots in China are proving effective at sanitizing hands (and neighborhoods) and even monitoring sick patients. Pretty impressive.
2. Robot Healthcare Assistants. With healthcare systems under siege from coronavirus, response measures and information distribution is severely challenged. To combat this, Canada-based Stallion.AI, specialists in natural language processing, built a virtual healthcare agent capable of answering calls from humans related to COVID-19. Because they can handle a high volume of calls simultaneously, virtual assistants can significantly increase response rates and get more callers the information they need.
During calls, the AI-driven chatbot can also check and monitor symptoms, offer reliable recommendations and ultimately advise individuals whether they need hospital screening or self-isolation. Similarly, Massachusetts-based Orbita, a leader in conversational AI, created OrbitaASSIST, a voice-powered, AI-driven virtual health assistant to improve patient communication at the bedside. So far the results are impressive with as much as a 70% reduction in median response time to patient calls.
3. Disease Surveillance Robots. As the world has learned, surveillance of an infectious disease like COVID-19 is crucial. BlueDot, a health monitoring platform based in Canada, reportedly used an AI algorithm to detect the Coronavirus outbreak on Dec. 31, a week before the Center for Disease Control. Per Wired, rather than relying on national health officials for outbreak information, "BlueDot's AI algorithm analyzes global news reports, animal and plant disease networks, airline ticketing data and official announcements to predict and detect potential epidemics." During the coronavirus outbreak, the algorithm reportedly used airline ticketing information to accurately predict the spread of the virus from Wuhan, China, to Bangkok, Seoul, Taipei and Tokyo. With time equating to lives lost, this was a clear win for robot kind.
Now for the human kind...
3 Human Wins in the fight against COVID-19
1. Who is Amazon relying on? Turning to the world's largest online retailer as a litmus test reveals a lot about the reliance on robots vs. humans. In one warehouse near the Denver airport, Amazon recently deployed squat little robots to do the heavy lifting and ferry packages between human workers. However, this deployment pales in comparison to Amazon's recent hire of 100,000 additional humans in direct response to the pandemic. The bots ferry, but for the fine manipulation of objects, Amazon turns overwhelmingly to human kind.
According to Amazon, "We are hiring 100,000 full and part-time employees, and looking for talent in every community where we operate." When COVID-19 closed teacher Darby Griffin's preschool, Amazon had a job for her. "It's important to me to be helping people during this time," said Griffin. The new hires fill a range of roles in the operations that receive, fulfill, ship, and deliver customer orders. “Their need for human labor may fall through time, but for now the growth in demand for their products outstrips any gains from automation,” says Dean Baker, senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research and visiting professor at the University of Utah. Score one for the blue jean wearers. Somewhat telling when a world leader in robotic automation doubles down on humans in a crisis.
2. Human's prove "Essential." Shelter in place orders have shut down many factories and businesses. Yet, essential businesses and companies that can operate with remote workers remain open and those businesses are essentially run by humans. Essential humans. It may surprise some, but up to 80% of the US workforce...is still working during the pandemic. Much of this can be attributed to companies who transitioned workers from shared offices to home offices in a matter of days—try pulling that off with a legion of robots. In addition, the front lines include grocery stores workers, product and commodity distribution personnel and service workers. Here, humans rule the roost and robot technology has not made an impact.
The crisis incited a very human response from youth who have self-organized and are very likely delivering supplies to at-risk people in your neighborhood right now. Similarly, restaurants and grocery stores remain in operation, playing an important role in maintaining our infrastructure, thanks to rapid shifts. Again, it's the humans who pivot effectively and in the case of food distribution, that means getting food to customers while limiting their exposure and leveraging a human-first approach that positions workers up front to answer questions, orchestrate the new shopping paradigm and effectively lower anxiety to get the job done. Bot trainable? Not before the shelves are empty.
3. It's Humans on our most critical front--Health Care. “We know that robots are great at certain things right now, like repetitive work,” says Julie Carpenter, a roboticist and research fellow at the Ethics and Emerging Sciences Group at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. “What's not so great is anything that has to do with a human-centered context, a cultural context.” We are seeing this play out in hospitals and health-care facilities across the country. A hospital isn’t like a factory floor; empathy and human connections matter. Patients—especially those stricken with the novel coronavirus—are severely ill and scared as hell. “Whether it's physical or emotional, people need to feel like their pain is being heard, that their implicit suffering is made explicit and have that reflected back to them,” Carpenter says.
Despite the success of artificial empathy in AI or coding empathy into machines, try teaching a machine to empathize with a human on the brink of death. It's this "empathy gap" that makes many roboticists shudder at the thought of automating sensitive jobs, like doctors, police and education. As this goes to print, it's doctors, nurses and other health care workers who are making the biggest difference where it really counts. Health care workers aren't immune to viruses and don't have the intellectual intelligence of AI or robots, but they posses an emotional intelligence and capacity for nuanced compassion that can take years to master, let alone program.
Robots or Humans?
In the face of the most deadly pandemic the world has ever seen, we are effectively employing AI and robots as virtual assistants, disinfectors, fever takers and more—and these efforts are making an impact, but the real solutions to this slowly revealing pandemic are coming from humans. It's people who are saving us: scientists, doctors, nurses and other health workers who may never be replaced by machines. Not to mention the grocery, delivery and massive work-from-home workforce supporting our infrastructure and distribution system. They, like the health care workers, are the humans manning our key front line positions, while the robots toil under human oversight far behind the lines. Flaws and all, we are still our only saviors—and that includes every one of you beautiful humans.
Feel empowered. We've got this.
Train Ride in India, anyone?
If you’ve ever been to India, the words train ride and luxury are oxymoronic. Indeed, train rides in India are more akin to third-world suffering than just about any train ride in the world. They’re hot, sweaty, laced with people and toilets flush directly onto the tracks… even at the station. But get that smell out of your head, ‘cause Indian tracks will now experience rolling decadence unseen since the age of Indian Royalty – Maharaja.
Romantics have often said that India is best explored by train, and now it’s true. Welcome aboard the The Indian Maharaja, a new private luxury railcar offering cinematically lavish tours of northern India. Well-appointed understates the plush interiors and extravagant cuisine of this memorable journey machine. Welcome aboard! It’s pulling out of station as you read this, most likely flush with a flock of hip travelers like you who know a good thing when they see it.
Specifically, an on-board spa and enough wine to keep you sated for the duration of your tour across northern India’s finest attractions. Outside your climate-controlled, rolling hotel room, lays an unpredictable vista of beauty, history and even a few unusually friendly tigers, courtesy of Ranthambore National Park.
Red sandstone ghost towns, 10th century fortresses and endless subcontinent picturesque glory are a few of the marvels you’ll roll through on this week-long odyssey of Orient-Express enormity. It’s a mesmerizing tour of the vast expanse of Maharashtra, covering Mumbai, Aurangabad, Udaipur, Sawai Modhopur, Jaipur, Agra and Delhi.
In fact, this pimp ride offers everything you expect from a continental hotel, yet it’s all miraculously suspended above rails and set loose on the subcontinent. That means you’ll be able to take in a steam bath, get a quick rubdown courtesy of the onboard masseuse, or (in case of emergency) send a few emails without stepping off the train.
And, more importantly, you’ll be bedding down in a bona fide hotel room instead of a sleeper car, decked out with a full bed, a minibar and a butler to bring you whatever you can’t find in the room….
Which is endless considering the environment. None to fret –exotic daytrips off tracks entice, including one that lets you tackle the countryside while riding a camel.
Don’t stare it in the mouth.
The Indian Maharaja, departing Nov 18, 877-904-6342
Experience. Explore. Give.
Travel, like sex, usually leaves you feeling good, but can leave you feeling selfish if you take more than you give. Volunteer tourism in places as seductive as Luang Prabang, Laos lets you eat your cake and give some, too – explore, share and love fully.
The lure of foreign second- or third-world travel is captivating – the rawness of life, the tangible culture, the struggle for basics that we take for granted. No justification for such fascination is necessary, but if it were, it lies in what we learn, what we share and how the experience opens our minds.
As travelers of all ages seek opportunities for truly unique, personal and satisfying travel experiences, the popularity of volunteer tourism grows. Perhaps it is fueled by an escape from our own culture of materialism and shallow culture. Regardless, volunteering our time in a country we visit is an opportunity to bridge cultures, share insights and experience the simple joy of sharing.
In Luang Prabang, you can volunteer with Global Vision International (GVI) and experience the splendor of Laos’ former kingdom capital in French-influenced comfort while teaching novice monks conversational English. The monks offer a unique view into the lives of Laotians and thanks to the skills you imbue, a first-hand guide to the culture, history and hotspots of this UNESCO world-heritage town. Teach from 1-12 weeks and directly help these young Laotians take steps to improve their livelihoods and futures.
In the past, volunteer travel typically meant a significant investment of time – generally requiring several weeks or months supporting a project. Now opportunities exist for travelers to mix smaller doses of volunteering in with vacation travel. Different options emphasize work and vacation in various doses to perfectly match one’s tastes.
And an array of companies has popped up to help. Services range from a simple introduction to a relief organization to a complete in-country orientation, accommodations and 24-hour support, all backed by an in-country agent. Placements vary from two to 12 weeks and volunteers can work teaching English in impoverished schools, supporting the construction of homes and infrastructure, offering social work in orphanages, or pursuing environmental conservation.
And conserve you will, but be prepared to pay. Volunteers pay mediating companies from $200 up to $1,650 to help abroad. This money pays for accommodation and full board as well as the other services mentioned above. Some may also go towards a host family and project.
Given the range of options available, scouting your ideal trip will involve a fair bit of Internet searching, but start by:
1) Honestly assessing your interests: do you want to spend more time volunteering, or more time touring? Is the volunteer activity a seasoning to your trip or the main dish?
2) Let this answer influence how you conduct your search and how you select a program.
3) Size up the vast universe of opportunities out there. No definitive database of volunteer travel experiences currently exists. Make your own.
Volunteer tourism offers travelers a unique insight into a country and the satisfaction of making a difference. Experience, explore, give.
Laos Volunteering: http://www.gviusa.com/projects/Asia/Laos/volunteer-teach-english-laos/home
How to Swim the Santa Monica Bay
Ask an LA native to take a dip off the beach in Santa Monica and expect a wrinkled frown. Yet, despite the local sentiment, the Santa Monica coastline offers some of the most pollution-free water in any major metropolitan area in the U.S. (at least when it’s not raining).
To make sure you avoid the shortcomings of Los Angeles swimming, here are a few tips to keep you in the cleanest currents.
5 Tips to healthy swimming
1. Don’t swim within 100 yards of flowing storm drains.
Storm drains deliver unhealthy levels of bacteria to the bay after rain. It’s not enough to just avoid the drains, instead avoid the risk completely by not swimming within 3 days of rain. Most drain pipes are covered over with sand during the summer months, offering a green light for safe summer swimming.
2. Don’t swim near creeks or rivers.
In Malibu surfers have been battling the state for years to clean up the bacteria running out of Malibu creek. The same goes for the Topanga creek, Zuma creek (north of Malibu), and Ballona Creek (affecting Playa Del Rey). Until they succeed, avoid all stream run-off.
3. Don’t swim in areas with no lifeguard on duty.
Though some unpatrolled beaches in Malibu and beyond are safe, many unpatrolled beaches in the LA city area are unsafe for swimming due to submerged rocks, pipelines, and other obstacles.
4. Steer clear of harbors.
Although local ordinances require large boats to empty human waste outside a 20 mile coastal limit, lazy live-aboard boaters often break this rule in both Redondo and Marina Del Rey harbors.
5. Watch the rain forecast.
Surfers, sea kayakers and other year-round watersport enthusiasts should attempt to keep their heads above water as much as possible during rainy winter months. Even one less dunk makes a difference.
Bonus Tip: Do earplugs make a difference?
According to lifeguards and doctors, the most common ailment associated with expose to bacteria-heavy water is ear infections. Earplugs keep water, and bacteria out of your ears where it belongs – buy a pair if breaking any of the above rules.
Grade the beach – how does your beach stand up?
Heal the bay has posted an on-line “Beach Report Card” for the Southern California coast from Santa Barbara County to Orange County. Visit http://www.healthebay.org/baymap/ to see how your beach fares. Beaches are graded on a standard A to F basis, based on biological pollution in water samples collected each week (tests exclude trash and toxins found at local beaches). For more information on the analysis methodology visit http://www.healthebay.org/beachreportmethod.asp.
Links to Fight the Pollution
*www.smbaykeeper.org is a community based, non-profit membership organization dedicated to restoring the quality of S.M. Bay, San Pedro Bay and adjacent coastal waters. Visit Baykeepers and learn what you can do.
*www.healthebay.org is a non-profit environmental group dedicated to making the Santa Monica Bay and Southern California coastal waters safe.
El Salvador Rising
In Spanish, “El Salvador” means “the savior;” in tourist English it means “tourist danger” and that’s exactly why you want to go and why you want to avoid thinking like a tourist.
Instead, think like a traveler, pack a compass and liftoff from the banal into a world of Mayan-soaked culture, rainforest-laced hikes and cabana-friendly coastline.
If countries waxed and waned like moons, El Salvador would be reaching a two-decade full moon. In 20 years, war ended, the Pope visited, a democracy and currency stabilized, a UNESCO World Heritage Site was named, the 2002 Central American & Caribbean Sports Games were hosted and El Salvador beat Mexico in the World Cup qualifiers. Viva El Salvador!
And all of this without a tourism ministry, infrastructure or e-brochure! Feeling anxious? Don’t. The raw state of this democracy is exactly what makes the appeal so rich. Ten years from now, tourists will flock to another bland Costa Rica. But now, the flavors, sights and experiences in El Salvador are pure and vibrant. Taste the nectar.
El Salvador is the smallest but most densely populated country in Central America. A tropical climate prevails, but most of the interior is covered by volcanic mountains and a fertile central plateau. Located between Guatemala and Honduras, it boasts 200 miles of striking Pacific coastline.
Surfers have been coming for years. Breaks dot the western coastline facing the Southern swell which wraps around lush point breaks in dreamy sets. Most stay in small villages like Sunzal and El Tunco which host bungalows overlooking the serenity for less than $20 a night.
Adventure lovers seek out rain forest treks beneath lush canopy, alive with fragrant smells and vivid colors. Volcanic mountain areas offer inspiring vistas and geology. Culture is close at hand (including fertile coffee plantations) with notable architectural and Mayan ruins.
As for cities, the capitol city of San Salvador isn’t the most appealing – it’s stricken with poverty and gridlock. Nearby Santa Ana is more attractive, surrounded by coffee plantations and sugarcane fields—travel to the Mayan ruin of Tazumal, erstwhile setting of human sacrifice! A couple hours north, La Palma offers cool weather and beautiful views.
Reputation for crime and violence deters most from El Salvador, but travelers who explore this country are enthralled by the beauty and soothed by the warm and intelligent people. Be one of them.
When to go: El Salvador’s rainy season is between May and November and its dry season is between December and April. Even in rainy season, sunny days are the norm.
Getting around: El Salvador is tiny, but not so easy to get around. The public bus system is inexpensive, but crowded – not ideal for luxury travelers. Renting a car is a popular choice (especially travelers with surf boards), or hiring a driver with a minivan.
Money: Prices in El Salvador are extremely low—no more than $3 USD for your average meal. The US dollar is used as legal tender, which makes things quite easy.
Safety: Most travelers leave without incident, however street crime is a problem in El Salvador. Resist wearing your best jewelry and walk in a group at night in cities to avoid incident.
Hoi An Vietnam...get there soon
World Heritage, White Sand and Fresh Seafood – it doesn’t get better than Hội An, Vietnam
If you found yourself on a Japanese merchant ship in the 1700s sharing sea lore by candlelight in the South Pacific, you would be told that the heart of all of Asia – the dragon – lay beneath the earth of Hội An, Vietnam. And no wonder – the picturesque harbor snakes past coral-white beaches into a deep-water refuge surrounded by tropical flora and lantern-lit streets. And nothing has changed.
Thanks to the French who chose Da Nang as their primary port, Hội An remained untouched by the changes to Vietnam over the next 200 years. Between textile and ceramic crafts, narrow cobblestone streets, covered bridges and bamboo foot paths, this UNESCO World Heritage site is a treasure-trove of cultural splendor straight out of Raise the Red Lantern.
And each night thousands of traditional Chinese lanterns cast a warm glow onto the two-story Asian and French architecture, lending pure romance to the town of 75,000. Dine on traditional Vietnamese cuisine in restaurants perched on docks in the harbor, your table casting candle-lit reflections across the bay. Walk the quiet streets at night and visit a tea shop or bar/lounge.
When the sun rises, the fish market is the first to stir as fishing boats unload their morning catch. Fresh shrimp and mussels compete for space alongside an array of colorful vegetables. Pack a backpack full, rent a traditional Flying Pigeon bicycle and peddle three miles to the coast for an afternoon of sun and swim.
The white-sand beaches are the best Vietnam has to offer and the emerald seas of the Gulf of Tonkin are breathtaking. Travel by calendar? Visit in January for a lantern festival to celebrate the Lunar New year.
Hội An was the best week of a three-month tour of Southeast Asia and I already know I’ll be going back.
Return to Africa
At the climax of Green Hills of Africa, Ernest Hemingway realizes that Africa means more to him than just a location to hunt, or even to write: it is the one place left where “it pleased me to live, to really live. Not just let my life pass.” Hemingway was speaking of the vibrancy of life in east Africa, a region alive with sounds and smells that lay pause to the over-active western mind and invite the soul to guide.
And lucky is the soul guided to the lush and spacious grounds of the Arusha Safari Lodge. Perched on a hillside beneath the snow-capped peak of Mt. Meru, Safari Lodge is a countryside residence four kilometers outside of the mid-size city of Arusha. The environs teem with life – fertile fields, acacia trees and clay-colored paths filled each morning with uniform-clad school children and colorful kanga-wrapped women carrying pots of water on their heads.
Tasteful understates the appointed interiors and sharp grounds of this adventure base camp. Its secluded vibe is more akin to an insider’s country home and easily offers a taste of everyday African life. It’s basked in warm sun as you read this, most likely flush with a handful of hip travelers like you who know a good thing when they see it.
Specifically, a spacious swimming pool, spa, tennis court and a fully equipped gym to keep you in shape for the duration of your tour across one of Africa’s most spectacular countries. Outside your poolside cottage, charmed with mosquito nets and a ceiling fan, lays a vista of beauty, including a stable of horses and a manicured polo field, courtesy of the nearby Dutch-owned carnation plantation.
But don’t get too comfortable. Some of Africa’s most famous landscapes and national parks surround, including Mount Kilimanjaro, Tarangire National Park, Ngorongoro Crater and the legendary Serengeti.
A country of rolling hills and beauty, Tanzania is a jewel of east Africa and the southern neighbor to the safari-star, Kenya, with which it shares the Serengeti. But don’t let Kenya distract you – it’s Tanzania’s turn in the sun. Those green hills exist and they’re waiting for you in Tanzania.
Watch Arusha Safari Lodge video on vimeo.
Winter (a one-sentence story)
Tall pines tower over my brothers and me, our short breaths visible in the December chill
that cuts through our matching corduroy jackets as we dash through rows of Fir trees
in search; our leather-soled saddle shoes slick on the winter grass, frozen, unforgiving,
it tears a pant knee while mom strolls behind, tolerant of her boys jaunt through the
Christmas tree farm of youth; beside her, our father, red saw in hand to fell our tree,
patiently enjoys the familiar winter scene, but to me that moment feels like the
first holiday, the only holiday, the only moment in a blessed life of adventure
and growth as we explore a magical forest before each taking a turn on the red saw,
momentarily removing our wool mittens to be men, but savoring a carefree child's
Christmas that begins with a Noble Fir atop our family's Delta 88.
A Father and Son
It was only when I held his hand in mine,
feeling the grip of a boy facing the world
dreaming, questing, imagining what he will be one day,
stretching his arms to the sky to make room for his dreams–
eyes alight, smile bright, mind turning faster than the chrome spokes on his racer bike;
the gift from a father who remembers the freedom of timeless rides beneath warm summer sun,
dirt paths beside a running creek,
the humid smell of thunderstorms on asphalt, peddling faster and faster he goes,
the wheels of a young mind spinning closer to wondering ‘who am I’ in a world in which
the best answers are taken,
the intriguing puzzles solved,
the highest peaks climbed,
making the challenge of ‘I’ and the question of ‘who’ slip further and further from reach,
like a toy airplane on a string – propeller roaring, lights blinking, around it turns,
but no where it goes–
and his tender fingers, wrapped in childhood nostalgia, reach for mine,
and they feel like my father’s hands,
which feel like my hands;
hands the three of us share,
all reaching for the same thing.
Geoffrey O'Brian is product content & design leader and adventure enthusiast.