A high-tech array of travel tools: ‘smart’ health cards, temperature-reading glasses and more

  • >> Debra Kamin, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-07-28 11:11:43 BdST

Products that rely on artificial intelligence aim to make travel safer during the pandemic, but hefty prices and privacy concerns are issues. (Simone Noronha/The New York Times)

Three weeks into Israel’s lockdown to help prevent the spread of coronavirus, Rafi Kaminer decided to get creative with his cabin fever.

The chief executive of Pangea Group, an Israeli company that builds infrastructure for biometric identification and digital analytics, Kaminer was used to flying abroad several times a month. But with global air traffic reduced to a trickle and borders sealed across continents, Kaminer found himself housebound — and itching for a solution. He began brainstorming with his brother, Assaf Kaminer, an executive vice president at Pangea, and the two came up with an idea: To get people flying again, invent a streamlined method of determining that a traveller is free of COVID-19, resulting in a document that could be presented at any airport in the world, encrypted for security and customised for the unique testing regulations of each port of entry.

So, tapping their co-workers and the power of artificial intelligence, a Pangea team worked to invent it themselves.

The travel industry is well acquainted with artificial intelligence: customer service chatbots, predictive search engines and automated check-in services like self-service bag drops are becoming de rigueur. But with coronavirus now ravaging the industry, programmers and digital designers are seeing an opportunity to innovate.

The COVID-19 Pass Card

In June, Pangea announced its COVID-19 Pass Card. Unlike the documents being considered in countries like Chile and Germany, which announce that the holder has recovered from COVID-19, the Pass Card is more like a digital passport with two parts: a biometric smart card and a prediction engine that includes a web portal, accessible by computer or smartphone.

It doesn’t measure antibodies or offer proof of immune status. Rather, the portal delivers customised testing requirements based on departure and arrival cities, so the cardholders know if they need to get tested for the virus before their flight or after they land, and for how many days a test remains valid.

The smart card, which is encrypted and relies on facial and fingerprint recognition, carries the cardholder’s COVID-19 testing data, as well as the traveller’s medical profile and immunisation records for other ailments like yellow fever, measles and hepatitis.

Kaminer hopes that air passengers will be carrying Pangea’s passport within a matter of months. The company is awaiting approval from Israel’s Ministry of Health to grant the card to Israeli citizens, and next they will push forward on discussions with port authority representatives in a handful of US cities, as well as in Johannesburg and Addis Ababa.

“Corona is not going to leave us for at least the next 12 to 18 months. So we need a solution,” Kaminer said.

There are other applications, too: A universal encoded health-care card could mean that emergency medical technicians could instantly know if an unconscious heart attack victim was on blood pressure medication. It could also mean that a patient entering a hospital not affiliated with their medical group would still be able to offer doctors instant access to their medical records.

Temperature-Reading Glasses

The severe acute respiratory syndrome crisis of 2002-04, which helped drive the expansion of online shopping giants Alibaba and JD.com in China, contributed to the global rise of e-commerce. The coronavirus may very well do the same for travel innovations, paving the way for a new ubiquity for artificial intelligence long after the pandemic is quelled.

While Pangea’s data scientists were developing their biometric platform, researchers in the Beijing and San Francisco offices of Rokid, a technology company specialising in robotics and AI development, began working on a prototype for temperature-reading glasses.

They had the hardware on hand: The company had been producing Rokid Glass, augmented-reality eyewear, since May 2019. But in March, Rokid began exploring ways to allow wearers to know if they were coming close to anyone with a fever. Their new Rokid Glasses aim to kill two birds — temperature detection and social distancing — with one pair of AI-powered spectacles.

The glasses use an infrared sensor and camera, allowing wearers to essentially “see” the temperature of people around them. Liang Guan, Rokid’s US director, said the glasses can currently measure up to 10 people’s temperatures simultaneously.

The glasses went on the market this spring. The Dubai Transport Security Department is a customer — they’ve been using the glasses since April for body-temperature detection in airports, on subways and in fire stations. Singapore Mass Rapid Transit has also purchased them for the same use, as well as Aeropuertos Argentina, one of the largest private sector airport operators in the world, with 35 airports under its management in South America.

The glasses are also available on Amazon, at a hefty price tag of $6,999.

In airports, on subways and in crowded public spaces, Rokid believes the glasses will equip security officers with a critical tool for locating people who could spread COVID-19. But there’s a privacy issue at play: Personal body temperature is private medical data, and the glasses allow the wearer to access that data from anyone who crosses their line of sight, with no opportunity for consent.

But, said Guan, “We are going to live with COVID-19 probably longer than anyone thought,” and that, he said, will have an effect on perceptions of privacy. “In the future, the balance might be shifted more to public safety. And I think by then, ordinary people might be able to use these on the street.”

A Tour Guide That Speaks 17 Languages

Rokid’s thermal detection glasses and Pangea’s health passport join a crowded sector of new high-tech tools developed for travel during the pandemic.

Bespoke Inc., an AI chatbot developer headquartered in Tokyo, in February released Bebot, a multilingual chatbot that offers travellers updated information about coronavirus outbreaks, statistics and symptoms.

In January, Sitata, a travel app that monitors potential travel disruptions, introduced a new pandemic-focused platform, COVID Checker, to help travellers track restrictions and take stock of risk.

And in Miami, developers at the upcoming Legacy Hotel and Residences, a resort and condominium complex anchored by an on-site medical centre, are banking both on an AI-controlled air filtration system and an AI-powered medical diagnostics centre to lure residents and guests with the promise of health and safety.

Tour guides, too, are going artificial. Alex Bainbridge was at work on an interactive tour guide to embed in a driverless car when the pandemic hit. The chief executive of Autoura, which creates and delivers vehicle-based sightseeing experiences, knew that while robotaxis and autonomous vehicles are in the works, they’re not ready for the market yet. But with just a bit of work, his guide, SAHRA (Sightseeing Autonomous Hospitality Robot by Autoura), could be.

Powered by an app, SAHRA speaks 17 languages and asks her clients a number of questions before creating a location-guided tour itinerary. Although she offers only food tours in a handful of cities, including New York, London and Seville, Spain, Bainbridge says a wider range of experiences and options for 25 cities are being developed.

While traditional city tours involve packed hop-on, hop-off buses or a single guide shepherding a large group of strangers from location to location, SAHRA’s tours are physically distanced and tailored to individuals or families. They are designed to be carried out on bicycles, electric scooters or in private cars. SAHRA is part chatbot, part interactive map, and the plan is to eventually embed the tours in autonomous vehicles, which Bainbridge predicts will be commonplace in the travel market by 2025.

Price and Privacy

Yet researchers and sociologists say that as more such services enter the market, they have the potential to amplify divisions in society. The Pangea Pass Card costs about $140. Rokid’s temperature-reading glasses, about $7,000. Many people will not be able to take advantage of these tools, said Deborah Raji, a technology fellow at the AI Now Institute at New York University.

“There’s an inherent exclusion by giving some people the power to access these tools over others,” she said.

And then there’s privacy. Pass cards that contain sensitive health data, and glasses that reveal health information are powered by potent technology, and there is the danger that the technology could fall into the wrong hands.

But as global cases of COVID-19 continue to climb, AI could also serve as an ounce of prevention when the next health crisis hits the travel industry.

“If nine months ago we had the immunity passport, we could have immediately analysed where people from Wuhan were flying to, and known to quarantine specific areas, not just in China but also in the places that people from China went to,” Kaminer said. “AI will play a major role in the management of future crises.”

c.2020 The New York Times Company