IN VIRUS-HIT SOUTH KOREA, AI MONITORS LONELY ELDERS
AppleMagazine|June 05, 2020
In a cramped office in eastern Seoul, Hwang Seungwon points a remote control toward a huge NASA-like overhead screen stretching across one of the walls.

With each flick of the control, a colorful array of pie charts, graphs and maps reveals the search habits of thousands of South Korean senior citizens being monitored by voice-enabled “smart” speakers, an experimental remote care service the company says is increasingly needed during the coronavirus crisis.

“We closely monitor for signs of danger, whether they are more frequently using search words that indicate rising states of loneliness or insecurity,” said Hwang, director of a social enterprise that handles SK Telecom’s services. Trigger words lead to a recommendation for a visit by public health officials.

As South Korea’s government pushes to allow businesses to access vast amounts of personal information and to ease restrictions holding back telemedicine, tech firms could potentially find much bigger markets for their artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies.

The drive, resisted for years by civil liberty advocates and medical professionals, has been reinvigorated by a technology-driven fight against COVID-19. It has so far allowed South Korea to emerge as something of a coronavirus success story but also raised broader worries that privacy is being sacrificed for epidemiological gains.

Armed with an infectious disease law that was strengthened after a 2015 outbreak of a different coronavirus, MERS, health authorities have aggressively used credit-card records, surveillance videos, and cellphone data to find and isolate potential virus carriers.

Locations, where patients went before they were diagnosed, are published on websites and released through cellphone alerts. Smartphone tracking apps are used to monitor around 30,000 individuals quarantined at home.

Starting this week, entertainment venues in Seoul, Incheon, and Daejeon will be required to register customers with smartphone QR codes so they can be easily located if needed. The requirement expands nationwide on June 10.

But there’s a dark side.

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