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How tech can help tackle Covid-19

IBM is offering its arsenal of tools to help businesses and communities in their fight against the pandemic

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Technology is seen to play an important role to help people adjust to the new normal brought by Covid-19.

During the initial days of the pandemic when the virus struck Singapore, there was an urgent need to set up Covid-19 screening centres. That task fell on two key agencies on the frontlines of the fight: the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID) and Integrated Health Information Systems (IHiS).

The enormity of the exercise was staggering. In one instance, the NCID had to rapidly set up a screening centre for patients suspected to have contracted the virus at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, the main hospital tasked to support Singapore’s Covid-19 response. 

The immediate need: 100 laptops, networked printers, patient ID printers, and barcode scanners, all configured to the hospital’s local area network. The next step was to connect them to other medical equipment such as X-ray machines, CT scanners, blood pressure monitors, etc. The goal: By feeding registration information directly into the hospital's IT systems, the screening centre could rapidly churn data to monitor patient health and track the patient’s location and movement.

The NCID could accomplish this efficiently and rapidly, thanks to teams from IBM Services that worked with IHiS to set up the screening centre’s IT systems and had it up and running within just 24 hours. 

"Ensuring Singapore's healthcare institutions have the critical IT infrastructure they need to function during this world health crisis allows us to focus on what matters most – our patients," says Mr Huan Boon Kean, group chief information officer at National Healthcare Group. "IBM is a true partner, one that understands the critical nature of our role in providing healthcare to the nation and is working with us in very tangible ways to meet the challenges of this constantly evolving situation."

Mr Martin Chee, who has taken over as managing director of IBM Singapore in April, right at the height of the pandemic, was quick to recognise the importance of balancing the critical needs of employees, clients and the community. 

"When citizens were doing their part by following social distancing regulations, healthcare workers were taking care of the afflicted, and the government was mobilising resources to respond to this crisis, we asked ourselves, 'What could IBM do to help out?'" Mr Chee notes. "We had to take care of our employees and protect their health and safety. They, in turn, would enable us to take care of our clients, sustaining the digital operations of the most critical organisations. We are doing what we do best, which is applying data, knowledge, computing power and insights to solve tough problems."

IBM Singapore managing director Martin Chee recognises the importance of technology in the fight against the pandemic. PHOTO: IBM SINGAPORE

Ensuring that all ICT systems worked was a critical part of the fight. The NCID had to activate its business continuity management (BCM) plan and deploy additional IT equipment to support the sudden expansion of the hospital’s operations.  These operations had to be up and running 24/7, with dedicated IT personnel in place to deal with the system demands to support healthcare workers.  

"Singapore's public healthcare system and workers are the heroes, and IBM teams are proud to work with them in their fight against Covid-19," adds IBM’s senior client partner executive for public sector (healthcare) Priscilla Benedict, whose team worked on the implementation with NCID.  

Medical missions

In a parallel effort, IBM's Watson Health unit, which leads in using data and technology to solve complex medical problems, was working directly with healthcare organisations around the world to better understand the nature of Covid-19 and help in the rush to develop vaccines and find cures. The IBM Clinical Development system was made available at no charge to national healthcare agencies to reduce the time and cost of clinical trials by providing data and analysis from web-enabled devices.

As part of several global and regional initiatives, for example, IBM teamed up with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the United States Department of Energy, and more to launch the Covid-19 High Performance Computing Consortium (HPCC). This brought a massive amount of computing power – 16 systems with more than 330 petaflops, 775,000 CPU cores, 34,000 GPUs, and counting – to help scientists and researchers better understand the virus and find possible treatments and potential cures.

"These HPCC systems allow researchers to run very large numbers of calculations in epidemiology, bioinformatics, and molecular modelling," Mr Chee says. "These experiments would have taken years to complete by hand, or months if handled on slower, traditional computing platforms."

Leveraging AI 

IBM is now offering its Watson Assistant for Citizens for no charge for a minimum of 90 days to government organisations, healthcare institutions and universities globally, including Singapore. It will also assist with initial set up, which can be done in a few days. The initiation includes access to 15 pre-trained Covid-19 intents or queries.

"Intents are purposes or goals that are expressed in a customer's input, such as answering a question," an IBM spokesperson said. "By recognising the intent expressed in a customer's input, the Watson Assistant service can choose the correct dialogue flow to respond to it."

Organisations can also work with IBM to customise the offering on top of the base model and intents. They can include information related specifically to a city or a region, as well as integrate with the organisation’s back-end enterprise resource planning systems.

The AI (artificial intelligence) system leverages currently available data from external sources, including the US Centres for Disease Control & Prevention, and local sources on a state website. 

Apart from the healthcare industry, the adoption of AI has become crucial in supply chain management as well. "It is important to keep supply chains up and running to ensure that there are no major shortages that impact daily life during a lockdown," Mr Chee says. "We have made some of our supply chain offerings available at no charge for 90 days to companies – as well as support and expertise from our global teams."

For instance, IBM’s Cognitive Operational Risk Insight tool is now available at no charge for non-profit organisations. This tool uses IBM Watson and The Weather Company data to improve supply chain risk management and anticipates the risks posed by pandemics and other natural disasters. 

Call for Code

In a very short period, the Covid-19 pandemic has completely upended our collective way of life. One potent weapon: technology. Interestingly, the 2020 Call for Code Global Challenge has expanded to take on Covid-19 in addition to climate change. 

This year’s Call for Code Challenge is aimed at improving communications for medical teams and other emergency services, and to improve remote learning, since millions of students around the world are now in virtual classrooms. Applications could be built on open source software, including Red Hat OpenShift, IBM Cloud, IBM Watson and IBM Blockchain.

IBM has tied up with the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) to organise SCDF Lifesavers' Innovation Challenge in support of Call for Code 2020. "Developers, data scientists and problem solvers have been encouraged to utilise cloud technology to build solutions for emergency medical services, climate change responsiveness, crisis management and smarter cities," Mr Chee says. "The event will be held digitally, aligned with the government’s call to follow safe distancing measures."

The competition can serve as a platform for Singaporeans to better understand the challenges in saving lives and how technology can help, said SCDF's deputy commissioner for future technology and public safety Teong How Hwa. SCDF will offer cash prizes of $21,000 and scholarships to the top five teams. IBM Singapore will award the top five teams with cloud credits worth US$120,000 each to implement the solutions. "This inaugural collaboration with IBM positions SCDF at the new frontier of challenges and opportunities and will help us innovate for a safer and more informed future," Mr Teong says.

Learning digitally 

Teachers and students worldwide have adapted to distance learning with remote access and AI-powered teaching tools helping simplify home-based learning, not just for students but also for parents. IBM has extended its online education resources for teachers, students and parents via the IBM Academy Skills portal. Users can tap into new knowledge, skills and learning anytime, anywhere at no charge.

The Open P-Tech is one such programme for teachers and students which is a free digital education platform to equip students aged 14 to 20 with foundational knowledge about topics such as cybersecurity, AI and cloud computing. It brings components of the in-person P-Tech programme, which includes a global network of 220 schools, and builds on them with online courses for students to earn industry-recognised digital badges that can be added to their resumes.

New normal

In the post-pandemic world, organisations may need to adjust to the so-called new normal with restricted travel and more people working from home. How should companies prepare for post-Covid-19 scenarios? By focusing on three key aspects:

  • New ways of working: The world has transitioned to new ways of working at an unprecedented scale and speed. For today's virtual workforce, increasing collaboration and engagement has become crucial to maintain employee productivity. "IBM Aspera on the Cloud can help support remote work environments with high-speed file sharing and team collaboration," Mr Chee says. "With IBM Services for desktop virtualisation, organisations can simplify remote access to apps and data, empowering the workforce anytime, anywhere."

    AJP Business Pte Ltd is a Singapore-based firm which offers voice and mobile, managed Internet, and managed cloud services and solutions. AJP needed secure servers that could scale on demand and meet changing business needs. The company has been partnering with IBM since 2012. IBM servers provide AJP with flexibility and performance for mission-critical workloads, as well as the right tools to innovate. “By leveraging IBM Cloud, AJP found a suitable solution to our issue of deploying services for customers overseas,” says Mr Ken Lim, chief operating officer for AJP Business. “We received ample IT support from IBM, which contributed to our success in meeting client requirements seamlessly.”
     
  • Cost optimisation: This is key to maintaining financial stability. Enterprises need to streamline supply chains and operating costs to enhance procurement, manage suppliers and vendors, and improve efficiencies. "Clients can look at cloud-based virtual servers to optimise costs by moving and modernising their workloads to IBM Cloud," Mr Chee says. "They can also bank on IBM multi-cloud managed services for their application and workload requirements, with the security and flexibility required to meet evolving customer and market needs." 
     
  • Mission criticality: Mission-critical organisations such as banks, airlines, telcos, healthcare institutions and government agencies must be ever-mindful about cybersecurity. Having BCM is a must. "All of them are crucial, and all of them have business-critical systems that IBM helps run," Mr Chee says. "We constantly test and finetune our business continuity readiness in Singapore and worldwide. With many countries mandating work from home, we are working with our clients to enable their employees with remote capability offerings, upgrading their networks and enabling collaborative technologies to ensure productivity."

For example, to quickly address the requirements arising from the pandemic situation, SIA and IBM, a SIA IT Infrastructure partner, used Agile principles to collaborate and get the back office processes, support systems, and the front-end mobile applications used by the pilots, named Flynow and Roster, ready.  These mobile apps, developed and maintained by IBM Services team, support critical functions for SIA’s pilots.

Following Singapore Government’s advisory to work from home as much as possible, SIA and IBM teams worked effectively remotely to deploy Flynow and Roster functions in an expeditious manner; the developers from IBM were able to deliver the enhancements within a week in these challenging times. 

The steps taken today in reimagining employee empowerment, customer engagement and progressing society will define future leadership in a post-Covid-19 world.

Quantum key to future

IBM Singapore and the National University of Singapore (NUS) recently invited researchers to submit proposals for projects that may require the power of quantum computing. Contestants were given access to IBM’s quantum computing platform hosted on the cloud. The contest was held in collaboration with the QEP (Quantum Engineering Programme), which is managed by the NUS and the National Research Foundation (NRF). 

The three winning projects: 

  • Machine learned quantum stochastic modelling: Professor Mile Gu from NTU (Nanyang Technological University) and his team worked on key problems in modelling complex systems using quantum computing. Potential applications include financial models that help make investment decisions and more efficient artificial intelligence.
     
  • Quantum optimisation of non-linear optical elements: Leonid Krivitsky and Padath Anthur Aravind from the A*Star’s IMRE (Institute for Materials Research and Engineering) to work towards achieving higher efficiency for non-linear optical processes and devices. For the end-users, this will mean that the electronic devices will become cheaper, faster, and more energy-efficient.
     
  • Developing hybrid software for quantum optics and material sciences: Dr Wu Lin from A*Star’s IHPC (Institute of High Performance Computing) and her team developed hybrid software to optimise the design and solve many-body problems in quantum optics. For example, it can be used to develop ultra-sensitive quantum plasmonic biosensors for clinical tests to detect antigen for viruses.

The winners will receive 1-on-1 mentoring for three months from the IBM quantum team to implement the ideas using Qiskit, IBM's open source quantum software development framework. George Loh, NRF's director for services and digital economy, said such academia-industry collaboration "will strengthen our ecosystem for supporting quantum research and commercialisation."

Dr Kwek Leong Chuan from NUS' Centre for Quantum Technologies, co-director of the QEP, said Singapore has been ramping up engineering capabilities to translate quantum technologies into real-world applications. "This contest is a good platform for us to seed ideas and groom talent in quantum computing," he added.

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