The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdown has profoundly affected every part of life and significantly impacted on the role of artificial intelligence (AI) in society. The outbreak of coronavirus in Vietnam was far less destructive than in other countries, with the country famously reporting no deaths until mid-July. They reacted quickly and decisively to the virus, and the surge in AI and robotic workers supporting the economy and social distancing measures, as well as participating in vital research, played a prominent part in this success story. 

Chatbots, telemedicine, and various other AI technology will continue to play an essential role in allowing Vietnam to pursue further preventative healthcare and investigation strategies at an affordable cost. Researchers, seeking to understand the specific coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19, are also using AI in their work. 

Southeast Asian startups had a variety of reactions to the pandemic. We look at how some of them reacted to the lock-downs and more.

Industry 4.0, a term referring to the ongoing automation of traditional manufacturing and industry, has been booming in Southeast Asia for several years. An IDC report titled ‘Asia Pacific Enterprise Cognitive/AI Survey’ estimated that 37% of companies in Southeast Asia would implement plans to adopt AI into their business by 2023. Vietnam has been relatively slow on the uptake, but that may be about to change as the power of this growing industry has brought significant benefits to the struggle to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Leveraging chatbots for information dissemination and more

Chatbots have been deployed in Vietnam to dispense information to the public, through domain-specific interfaces that engage the user in a conversation. Essentially, these are algorithms which react to user-entered messages, using a messaging platform or chat solution to respond to queries in real-time. This interaction can be as simple as responding to keywords, using basic natural language processing, or it can make use of complex AI and machine learning techniques, allowing businesses to automate various procedures, drastically reducing their costs. 

If you have recently had a live chat with the support arm of a company, it is highly likely that you were talking to an AI chatbot trained to deal with customer queries. One study found that chatbots can effectively resolve 65% of customer inquiries in the eCommerce industry, and do so much cheaper than a human employee. 

In Vietnam, the nation’s largest telecom and software company, FPT Corp., has released a web-based chatbot that automatically assesses COVID-19 risk. By visiting the Corona Check website and entering information about their recent whereabouts, the app can compare this to known data on the location of cases, as well as the timing and quantity of cases locally. The app, using this information, estimates the risk that the user has been in contact with an individual who has COVID-19. The FPT Software vice president, Tran Hoang Giang, claims “Our AI system is continuously updating data to improve itself. Currently it could predict the probability of coronavirus infection with 90% accuracy. But it’ll get even better as more people submit self-assessments on the web.”

Making healthcare accessible with telemedicine

As well as chatbots providing public information, there has been an increasing demand for telemedicine, the practice of caring for patients remotely. The Vietnamese telehealth startup Doctor Anywhere allows healthcare professionals to remotely assess patients for symptoms of COVID-19 and other ailments, using video-based consultations. 

Vietnam has even seen investment from abroad to strengthen the sector, with the Australian government, through its Aus4Innovation program, donating $650,000 AUD to “find new ways to use AI as Vietnam recovers from COVID-19”. Discussing the donation, H.E. Ms Robyn Mudie, the Australian Ambassador to Vietnam, said “In the face of the global pandemic, it has become more important than ever. This AI initiative is a great example of how new technology can be adapted quickly to respond to Vietnam’s emerging needs.”

AI is playing a crucial role in the national response to coronavirus in Vietnam. From chatbots to telemedicine and beyond, these systems offer perennial benefits, but the global outbreak of COVID-19 has pushed society to realise the advantages and increase investment. This technology allows more business interactions to take place without human to human contact, reducing the risk of the spread of disease. Their efficiency also allows companies to adapt to the changing economic climate without incurring drastic losses. As Chu Ngoc Anh, the Minister of Science and Technology in Vietnam, said, “AI is considered a core technology for Industry 4.0 that has implications for post COVID-19 healing”. 

A 2019 study from Facebook and Bain & Company estimates that digital consumers in Southeast Asia will spend three times as much in 2025 compared to today. This evolving economic landscape will ensure that countries in the region, such as Vietnam, will continue to invest in their digital infrastructures. It looks likely that robotics and AI will play an increasing role both in eCommerce and in the fight against future pandemics.