Touch is distinct. Unlike our other senses, it is distributed throughout our entire bodies, inside and out. Via the somatosensory system, touch allows us to respond to sensations such as pressure, heat, vibration, and pain. It also is intwined with how we experience human intimacy.
Loss of smell and taste are recognized symptoms of Covid-19, but in our bid to avoid contagion, touch has also been impacted. Surfaces are now feared as potential sources of the virus, be they a door handle, a grocery cart, or a touch screen; hugs and handshakes have been replaced with distance.
Our new relationship with touch is fueling the development of technologies that avoid, or sometimes act as substitutes for, physical contact.
Facial recognition — the analysis of a digital image of a person's face to verify his or her identity—is already being used to open doors and unlock smartphones. Now, you can also avoid contact by using your face to pay for things. Californian technology company PopID has launched a system that combines facial payment authentication (PopPay), building access, and health screening (PopEntry).
The platform was accelerated and adapted in response to the coronavirus pandemic, allowing users to connect payment information to their PopID accounts and have their temperatures taken automatically via infrared thermography. Initial roll-out of PopPay has focused on restaurants close to workplaces and college campuses in California.
PopID CEO John Miller explains, "You get to check in on campus or at work with your face and have your temperature taken, and then in the nearby businesses you can use your face to pay for lunch."
Users upload a photo of their face to the PopID website, the image is vectorized and stored in the cloud. To pay, users look at a camera located at drive-thrus, in-venue kiosks, or on servers' handheld devices, and the captured image is then analyzed and processed, "First we do anti-spoofing to make sure that it's you and not someone else holding up a picture of you, and then we do the match." explains Miller.
As facial recognition networks learn, the technology gets smarter, "recognizing someone in different lighting conditions, if they have facial hair or not, glasses or not. Over time, the best face matching algorithms are going to be the ones with the most data," Miller says. His vision is that PopID will become a universal system, with future applications such as touchless ticketing for sports events.
Established facial recognition systems are also adjusting to the new normal. Mask-wearing poses a challenge: how to identify a person whose face is partly hidden.
Japanese electronics company NEC Corporation has adapted its face-matching technology, part of the NEC I:Delight biometrics platform, to focus on facial features that are not obscured by a mask. "Feature points based on wrinkles and unevenness around the eyes, for example, are extracted, then used for authentication. Even if an individual's nose is hidden, there is no problem with authentication," says Michitaka Yamada, manager of NEC's Digital Platform Division.
When going to the store started to feel like a risky activity, having products delivered became desirable. Emerging technologies like autonomous vehicles (AVs) and delivery drones have taken on new appeal as a means of minimizing contact with taxi/Uber drivers and delivery personnel. In Covid-19 times, they also have a public health role.
Californian start-up Nuro was already using AVs to transport goods, such as groceries, when the pandemic hit. Last spring, the company adapted its R2 system to provide contact-free deliveries of medical supplies to temporary Covid-19 care facilities in Sacramento and San Mateo.
In China, Shenzhen-based Unity Drive Innovation (UDI) has been using self-driving vans to delivery groceries to communities in quarantine; the unmanned vans also are deployed to disinfect hospital surroundings.
Drone use is also on the rise. According to a UNICEF rapid guidance report on how drones can be used to combat Covid-19, they have three main applications: lab sample and medical supply transportation, aerial spraying of public areas for disinfection, and public space monitoring during quarantine.
The UNICEF report also noted that "Countries which had the foundations of the drone-conducive environment were able to instantly mobilize the technology from the onset of the pandemic." These countries, according to the report, include Rwanda and Ghana.
Zipline, a medical delivery company headquartered in San Francisco, has an established network of drones and distribution centers in Rwanda and Ghana, allowing medical supplies to delivered quickly over challenging terrain. The company's pandemic response includes the pick-up and delivery of Covid-19 test samples via drone, avoiding unnecessary hospital visits and reducing the chances of infection.
Cali Group, the company behind PopID, also owns Miso Robotics, developers of an autonomous kitchen assistant called Flippy. "There's been a lot of demand for that product because of Covid, in addition to less contact with the food, there's fewer people in the kitchen close to each other," explains Miller, who is also CEO of Cali Group.
Robots also support the boom in remote working. Massachusetts-based Ava Robotics' telepresence robots have built-in HD videoconferencing interfaces and anti-collision technology. Remote workers can operate such a robotic substitute from home via smart device or Web browser.
While some robots prevent contact, others aim to compensate for its loss. In Japan, Yukai Engineering, a Tokyo-based robotics start-up, offers strokable robotic pets. Yukai's voice-controlled communications robot, BOCCO emo, is part of a pilot remote-care service aimed at reducing the loneliness of elderly people who are quarantining and isolated.
"The opportunities for seniors to go out and enjoy conversations with others is extremely limited. We exchange messages with seniors on BOCCO twice a day," says Yukai's overseas manager, Saaya Okuda, "So far, we have seen a positive response, and some have said that by talking with someone, they began feeling more enthusiastic about life in general."
The coronavirus pandemic is fueling a touch-free future, but some researchers point out that the trend is also exposing societal divides.
Alex Taylor, co-director of the Centre for Human-Computer Interaction Design at City University of London, explains, "We might just assume that things like being remote or touching are choices that people make and yet of course, that's not case. There are many professions and skills where that isn't an option,"
Healthcare professionals are on the contact frontlines. For those that treat Covid-19 patients and look after the elderly, touch is unavoidable.
"Touch and the contact between bodies is at the same time an intimacy, but also something that comes with certain privileges around who touches who and who has the choice to touch you," says Taylor.
In an article in ACM Interactions entitled Life Less Normal, Taylor argued that the pandemic is an opportunity to reassess how privilege and intersectionality impact on the design of technology. In the context of touch, he says, it is not purely about the mechanics of how a hand or body moves, but the social structures around touching or not touching.
"I think we have to take responsibility for the technologies that we build and understand that they are situated and entangled with other social structures."
Touch in the age of Covid-19 poses a dilemma: the need to both minimize it and to make up for its loss. As Taylor puts it, "To touch is to put people at risk, but it's also to recognize that it's a deeply important aspect of being together."
As technologists respond to the profound societal changes brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, time will tell what a no-touch future looks like and whether it is something to which everyone will have access.
Karen Emslie is a location-independent freelance journalist and essayist.
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